Alberta hospitals turn to travel nurses as staffing shortages continue

As staffing shortages continue to plague Alberta hospitals, travel nurses contracted by private agencies are being used to fill the gaps.

The use of staffing agency nurses is not new, but it is becoming more common as the practice is being adopted in some of the province’s largest urban hospitals, according the United Nurses of Alberta.

“It shows that there’s a real problem, that there’s a very serious shortage,” said David Harrigan, director of labour relations with the United Nurses of Alberta.

“Almost every major facility has travel nurses.”

According to Harrigan, staffing agency nurses have been used in northern Alberta for years, and more recently hospitals in central Alberta started turning to agencies for front-line staff.

Now, he says, emergency rooms and intensive care units at both the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary and the University of Alberta hospital in Edmonton are filling holes with travel nurses.

“It’s a terrible solution to the problem because it’s far more expensive,” said Harrigan, who notes some of these contracted nurses can be paid up to double the amount AHS nurses receive.

And the union is concerned about how quickly temporary nurses can adapt.

“They’re not oriented properly to the facility. They don’t know all of the procedures. In terms of continuity of care, it really causes big problems.”

David Harrigan with the United Nurses of Alberta says travel nurses are increasingly being used to address staffing shortages in hospitals. He says they’re being used in emergency rooms and intensive care units at the Foothills Medical Centre and the University of Alberta hospital. (CBC)

200 privately contracted staff

According to Alberta Health Services, there are nearly 200 registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and health-care aides — supplied by staffing agencies — working in the province’s hospitals and continuing care homes.

The use of temporary front-line staff, the health authority says, is a last resort in the face of growing strain on the health-care system.

“AHS has responded to increased pressure on our workforce by utilizing a number of strategies, including reassigning and redeploying staff to areas or greater need, training for redeployment, increased overtime and temporary increase of hours for part-time staff, call out to existing staff for additional hours, and recruiting retirees, students and new hires from out of province,” spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in a statement emailed to CBC News.

“Contracted staff are brought in to provide temporary help in areas where we have exhausted other options with existing staff, and in accordance with collective agreements. Contracted staff are never used in preference to qualified staff available for a given location/position.”

According to Williamson, the use of staffing agencies predates the pandemic and is done, on a small scale, across the country.

The workers provided through staffing agencies are primarily from outside Alberta and none are from the United States.

When it comes to the difference in pay, AHS says it contracts the private agencies, not the individual nurses, and the hourly rates are set by the agencies.

“We recognize our staff have been working tirelessly and are grateful for the additional support at this time.”

Kathy Howe, executive director of the Alberta Association of Nurses, says agency nurses have been used off and on for years, to ensure patient needs are met, when recruitment fails. (Kathy Howe)

Nurses ‘exhausted’

“I think at this point, anything can help,” said Kathy Howe, executive director with the Alberta Association of Nurses.

Front-line hospital staff, she says, are exhausted after two years of the pandemic.

“It can give nurses a break in a sense in that they can work the shift they’re supposed to work [and] not have their phone ring seven, eight times a day asking them to come in for extra shifts. And that can be very valuable,” she said.

“Even four nurses [or] eight nurses in a unit can really start to make a difference [and] just take a little bit of that pressure off.”

According to Howe, agency nurses can be highly experienced in environments such as the ER or ICU and they can adapt quickly.

“It’s a short-term solution,” she said. “Sometimes there’s no choice if you want to keep patients safe and you want to keep nurses safe.”

At the University of Alberta, Donna Wilson is watching this trend unfold with trepidation.

“This is quite a new and major development,” said Wilson, an RN and professor in the faculty of nursing at the University of Alberta.

“You can’t think that that’s just an automatic easy transfer, as if you can just bring them in, plop them into place and they start working from the minute they start there. Normally they take a week to a month to get oriented and up to speed. And some never do get up to speed.”

She calls the use of travel nurses a “Band-Aid” solution, and she says a long-term strategy is needed to address Alberta’s nursing crunch.

“We’re getting into some major shortages of nurses in various countries, and now it’s come home to roost, really. The pandemic, in particular, has made great demand for emergency room and ICU nurses,” said Wilson.

“It’s sad that we’ve waited until now. Two years ago, we could have started increasing enrolment into nursing programs and those nursing students could already be out there working in hospitals as nursing students.… But it didn’t happen.”

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