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Labour Views: Is our Healthcare System about to collapse?

Jan 17, 2024

Another year, another bump in the road for NWT Healthcare. In the past two weeks, both of Yellowknife’s local health centres have been forced to temporarily close due to mechanical issues caused by the recent cold snap.

This left the hospital as the only option for urgent care, but Stanton is already running at full capacity, thanks to a seasonal spike in severe respiratory illnesses. This in turn affects non-Yellowknife residents who may need those spaces because the care they need isn’t available in their home communities.

We know the territorial government can’t control the weather, and you can’t tell people to “stop getting sick”. But what our government can do - and should have been doing for the past twenty plus years - is invest in a healthcare system that can handle unexpected circumstances with minimal disruptions.

We’re at the point now where our healthcare system looks like a game of Jenga - a shaky structure full of holes and ready to collapse at any moment as another block is removed, and more weight is piled on top.

One of our biggest problems is that instead of filling those holes by investing in resident, indeterminate positions, our government has been relying too heavily on locums and contract workers.

While contract workers may be necessary at times to fill gaps, they’ve become so common in our system that the differences between how contract and permanent staff are treated are dividing what should be a cohesive workplace, resulting in low morale, and making retention issues worse.

Having fewer long-term healthcare workers also affects overall quality and continuity of care.

Bringing out of territory workers for short stints at a time results in a revolving door of healthcare staff who may be unfamiliar with local cultures and languages, community social structures and supports, or even the day-to-day practices and procedures of their workplace.

It’s so important - especially in the NWT - for residents to receive culturally appropriate healthcare delivered by workers who live in and know the North. Being able to build relationships between residents and healthcare providers is a key part of delivering consistent, quality care.

When appointments do become available, it’s frustrating to have to spend most of your appointment time bringing the latest locum up to speed on your medical history and current situation.  

The GNWT’s current approach of relying on a constant rotation of locums means healthcare workers don’t have the time to get to know their patients or become part of their community.

If the GNWT wants to attract (and retain!) long-term healthcare workers, they need to fully understand how relying on short term fixes is hurting everyone involved - from the contract workers who feel isolated and resented, to the indeterminate workers who feel disrespected and undervalued, to NWT residents who feel their healthcare needs are not being met.

It also undermines the integrity of our system. When the government continues to highlight understaffing as the rationale for the state of NWT healthcare, people feel guilty about booking appointments or accessing care unless it’s a life-or-death situation.

Missing out on preventative care because you don’t want to overburden workers or take a spot from someone “who really needs it” results in more stress on the system down the road when conditions worsen and require more complex care.

And while it certainly helps, investing in healthcare isn’t just about spending money - it also means investing the time and resources to talk to and listen to your workers, hear what they have to say, and take their input seriously.

These days it feels like “engagement” is less about looking for real solutions and more about government policy makers being able to tick a box on their checklist. Surveys and workplace evaluations aren’t helpful to anyone if they get put on a shelf to gather dust as soon as they’re published.

Maybe our newly elected Cabinet’s New Years resolution for 2024 should be to find ways to include what they hear from residents and workers in the policies they approve, rather than providing excuses for why they won’t.

A lot of the issues our Union hears about from members in healthcare come down to the relationship - or lack thereof - between workers and the most senior levels of management.

While compensating workers fairly - and equitably - is always important, money can only fix so much when the decision-makers have lost touch with what’s happening on the ground.

If GNWT leadership truly wants to fix our healthcare system, they need to show their workers that they are valued, respected, and that their concerns are being taken seriously.