METRO VANCOUVER — The B.C. Nurses Union is blaming bed closures at New Westminster's Royal Columbian Hospital (RCH) this summer on the provincial government's lack of a long-term human resources plan for nurses.
Two critical care beds at RCH have been closed for several weeks and will stay closed until Sept. 30 because there aren't enough specialty-trained ICU nurses to backfill shifts.
Nurses' union vice-president Christine Sorensen said nurses are concerned the loss of the beds will compromise patient care and exacerbate overcapacity issues in the emergency department.
Such closures could be avoided with a long-term human resources plan for nurses, she said, but as far as nurses can tell, the government and the health authorities don't have one.
She points to extensive use of overtime and nurses regularly being called on their days off to pick up extra shifts.
"It seems to be that a lot of the coverage for these departments is at the last minute," Sorensen told The Record.
She said RCH administrators would have known since last November when nurses were taking vacations and leaves.
"They would have had ample time to plan for this and recruit new staff, orient new staff and ensure that they had adequate staffing, so that closures would not be required," Sorensen said.
She said her union has long called for more specialty-trained nurses, but government and the health authorities have been slow to act.
"There's a cost factor to specialty training, so I surmise that that's probably one of the factors," Sorensen said.
Fraser Health executive director for critical care, Lakh Bagri, however, said Fraser Health has put "lots of effort" into making sure it has enough ICU nurses.
He said the health authority has just secured six extra specialty-education seats for nurses at BCIT and eight more in a pilot program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
"Unfortunately, over the next weeks we do have a shortage at RCH," he said.
"We've just come across a situation where you've got more mat leaves than usual through this part of the year, and we've got a few people who are off on disability or long term."
As for the bed closures, Bagri said Fraser Health has actually seen a net increase of ICU beds this summer with the opening of 13 in Surrey Memorial Hospital's new critical care tower.
Any expansion in the network of beds helps RCH, Bagri said, because patients can be moved to other hospitals where there is more room.
That being said, Fraser Health would open the closed beds at RCH if all the patients in its intensive care unit were too sick to be moved, Bagri said.
That's not good enough for Sorensen, who said scrambling at the last minute to staff beds is not an "ideal provision of care."
"It would be better to have the beds open, staff scheduled and staff oriented to provide quality patient care to that patient, rather than a last-minute scramble to open a bed and staff it," she said.
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