Original Published 01:14 Jun 11, 2022

By Mia Jensen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

As staffing shortages remain a top-of-mind concern at Health Sciences North, nurses are reporting concerns that the lack of available staff is leading to delays in chemotherapy treatment for some cancer patients in Sudbury and across Ontario.

According to Cathryn Hoy, president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA), nurses across the province are reporting similar concerns, that chemotherapy treatments are being delayed, or sometimes even skipped. 

“It comes down to staffing,” Hoy said. “(Chemotherapy) is more complicated than just sticking an IV in, especially if the patient is new. You need a new to stay with them, monitor for reactions, check-in. So when we’re short-staffed, the rest of the patients suffer.”

It’s a concern that has been raised throughout the pandemic, as an influx of COVID-19 patients in hospitals has overrun facilities and forced long delays for medical treatments. 

But for aggressive diseases like cancer, delaying treatments like chemotherapy can be harmful, and in some cases deadly. According to a peer-reviewed study by Canadian and UK researchers published in the British Medical Journal, every month of delay in treating cancer can raise the risk of death by as much as 10 per cent for seven types of cancer. 

The study was a response to global delays to treatments during the pandemic.

“In light of these results, policies focused on minimizing system-level delays in cancer treatment initiation could improve population level survival outcomes,” wrote researcher Timothy Hanna.

“The schedule is important,” said Hoy. “Chemotherapy can be lifesaving, but if it’s delayed, it can halt progress. Then we have to switch from trying to save a life to maintaining a quality of life until death, just trying to buy them a few more months.”

Similar concerns have also been reported by members of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, another nurses’ union representing RNs. 

Union CEO Doris Grinspun said that while they had not heard reports of any cancellations or skipped treatments, they had heard that some patients were being moved from inpatient to outpatient treatment facilities and experiencing delays of several hours due to lack of resources.

She said the issue became more significant during the pandemic.

“Not only staffing shortages, but the pandemic itself,” she said. “Procedures were being cancelled because (COVID-19 patients) were occupying the hospital beds. Then you add to that that you have staff shortages that have only become more acute, we have a crisis.”

Grinspun said the only way to address such delays is to focus on improving career prospects and treatment of health care professionals, especially nurses. That includes repealing Bill 124, what the nurses call the Ford government’s wage increase suppression bill, something nurses have been pushing for since it was enacted.

“We have offered to (HSN) to work with them on their retention and recruitment campaigns,” she said. 

“We have done it already with many other hospitals successfully. When nurses see that there is a career for them in an organization, you have very much increased access and retention.”

In a statement, HSN media specialist Jason Turnball said that staffing shortages across some of the hospital’s inpatient units has forced the rescheduling of some procedures, including in the chemotherapy ward.

“A shortage of chemotherapy trained nurses has meant that some admitted patients requiring chemotherapy treatment have received care at the cancer centre’s outpatient clinic,” he said. “Some start dates for treatment have also been delayed due to a lack of inpatient beds and as we recruit and train new staff to provide this care.”

That recruitment effort has been hospital-wide. Turnball said HSN has been attempting to address issues by reassigning staff where possible and increasing hiring efforts to bring in new nursing graduates, personal support workers, and externs, meaning students trained to be nurses.

They have also been reaching out to recently retired staff. 

“These efforts recently led to 33 new nursing recruits, on top of the 800 employees recruited in the past year, with more expected to be added in the coming weeks,” said Turnball.

Hoy said HSN has posed a particular challenge for Ontario nurses, because of its staffing problems and overcrowding, which have led to a crisis of hallway medicine in a facility that’s constantly over capacity. 

“That employer has a history of not working with staff,” she said. “They need to work with staff better and provide more support. (The union) will continue putting pressure on them to make adjustments.”

She added, “If changes aren’t made, the people of Ontario are going to suffer. We’ll all need a hospital at some point in our lives. We deserve good care.”

This item reprinted with permission from The Star, Sudbury, Ontario