Two years into the pandemic, organizations representing health workers across the country are sounding the alarm that Canada’s health care system is collapsing. Without immediate action, there is little to hope for in the future. While Canadians are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and public health measures are being loosened, the same cannot be said for health workers. On top of severe exhaustion and burnout from working through two years of COVID-19, health care workers now face both massive system backlogs and a shortage of colleagues to cope with demands.
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) were joined by almost 40 health organizations on March 9 for a second emergency meeting to discuss the health worker crisis. The first meeting held in October 2021 resulted in the organizations calling for decisive action to address staff burnout and shortages, including immediate and urgent actions and long-term solutions to address the crisis.
“While governments and Canadians are hoping to move past the pandemic, an exhausted, depleted health workforce is struggling to provide timely, necessary care to patients and make progress through a significant backlog of tests, surgeries and regular care,” said Dr. Katharine Smart, CMA president. “What we heard is disheartening, with health workers exceedingly distressed, facing harassment and leaving their careers and professions. Until governments start to recognize these problems, we will never move forward to find concrete solutions.”
“COVID-19 has impacted the health workforce in ways we still can’t really quantify. But people at all career stages are now implicated as are all the major sectors of health care, and it is clear that health workers are on the brink of collapse with little left to give,” said Michael Villeneuve, chief executive officer of the CNA. “The pandemic may be waning, but we are still in the middle of a health-care crisis. We know the issues are bigger than any one jurisdiction can handle alone, governments must immediately work together as a federation in crisis to take immediate action.”
During the meeting, representatives from provincial, territorial and pan-Canadian organizations agreed: The issues faced by the health workforce have gotten worse since the fall of 2021, and while there has been recognition of the work of the health workforce during the pandemic, concrete commitments to address the issues in a sustainable manner are lagging.
Key priorities identified include: creating a robust data source of health human resources; implementing a multi-disciplinary nationwide health human resource strategy; and committing to transform Canada’s health care system for the future.
There was also a shared recognition that the health system must be re-imagined to respond to the needs of patients in an aging society, and that health care environments must be transformed to be responsive to workers within it. Without new thinking and a real commitment from political leaders across the country to rebuild health care, the crisis unfolding before us will simply not be resolved.