Nurses warn of ‘breaking point’ at Prince George hospital, the largest in northern BC

Nurses warn of ‘breaking point’ at Prince George hospital, the largest in northern BC

Nurses in Prince George are warning the largest hospital in northern BC is at a “breaking point,” describing long waits in the emergency room and patients lined up in hallways to receive care.

Members of the BC Nurses Union (BCNU) held a rally outside the University Hospital of Northern BC (UHNBC) Thursday in an effort to draw attention to what they say is a “crisis” for both health-care workers and patients alike.

Danette Thomsen, who represents the nurses union in Prince George and northeast BC, says she experienced the problems first-hand when she took her grandson in for emergency care earlier this year.

“We waited outside with just a security guard telling people to line up if they needed to see a doctor,” she said. “It was an hour to get to a triage nurse.”

WATCH | Thomsen describes the long waits at the hospital in Prince George:

Nurses in Prince George say hospital is at a breaking point

The BC Nurses Union says the largest hospital in northern BC is overwhelmed with patients and regularly operating above capacity.

According to the BCNU, UHNBC is regularly operating at between 118 to 125 per cent capacity, with the ICU being overloaded and patients receiving care in overflow spaces as a result.

To make matters worse, smaller emergency rooms in communities like Mackenzie, Chetwynd and Burns Lake are regularly closed due to a lack of staffing, leading to additional patients coming to Prince George from hundreds of kilometers away to receive care.

“I don’t know, when a hospital’s that backed up, what will happen in a state of emergency,” Thomsen said.

Wildfires a worry

The rally comes as BC’s doctors’ association is warning that emergency departments across the province are facing pressure against and calling on the government to take steps to address the issue.

In an email made public earlier this month, Doctors of BC described hospitals “overrun with patients and near collapse,” with co-president Dr. Gord McInnes said, “Our emergency departments are on red alert.”

A silo in a field under a light orange sky, presumably from smoke due to wildfires.
Northern Health says it has contingency plans in place should facilities need to be evacuated due to wildfires or other emergencies. (CBC News)

It also comes after the finding that ERs across BC were closed for thousands of hours cumulatively in 2022, with closures at the time attributed by the province to staff shortages, driven by waves of sick leaves and more lasting staff retention issues, as well as the spread of COVID-19 and high levels of respiratory illness.

Thomsen said she was particularly worried about what would happen should another major hospital in the region be unable to take patients due to a natural disaster.

Just last week, more than 21,000 people in the city of Fort St. John was placed on evacuation alert due to wildfires, and Thomsen isn’t sure where people from that city needing care would be able to go for help had operations been shut down.

“The rest of the province is so full that some of the deviations we were sending to Victoria, Vancouver aren’t able to go,” she said. “It’s bigger than a quarter of the province that this hospital is taking care of.”

In a statement, Northern Health said it regularly meets with the union to address concerns and that it is “optimistic” a recent deal between the province and the Nurses’ Bargaining Association would help address staffing and other issues.

A blue and tan building with small windows and two narrow ventilation stacks on the roof.  Beside it is a sign that says University Hospital of Northern BC
The BC Nurses Union says the University Hospital of Northern BC in Prince George is regularly operating above capacity. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

As to concerns about overflow, the health authority said that it has done extensive planning for scenarios such as wildfires and has managed to keep their impact on care “to a minimum.”

Nurse-to-patient ratios coming: province

Health Minister Adrian Dix has acknowledged the issues in emergency rooms, telling CBC News that the province has seen a very high level of hospital occupancy in 2023.

In January, Dix said 10,260 hospital beds were occupied across BC — higher than the 9,200 base bed capacity and more than was seen on any day in 2021.

In a written statement released Thursday, the Ministry of Health said it is prioritizing the retention and support of nurses and other health-care staff in the province through recruitment, training and retention that includes investing $1.1 million to help fund a nursing degree program in Fort St. John.

The statement also pointed to the April announcement that BC will be the first Canadian province to adopt a nurse-to-patient ratio as part of its plan to improve workload standards in public health.

When announcing the program, Dix said setting a nurse-to-patient ratio is “the leading international practice” for retaining nurses and delivering quality health care.

BCNU vice-president Adriane Gear said in Prince George that it was the right move in order to address workload issues at BC hospitals, but the key question now is when it will actually happen.

“We really need to focus on making sure that the government delivers on that promise,” she said.

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