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It’s past time to rebuild our health human resources

Posted Apr 28th, 2023

This is an opinion column by Niagara Health President and Chief Executive Officer, Lynn Guerriero, published in the St. Catharines StandardNiagara Falls Review and Welland Tribune

It’s a challenge sweeping across Ontario and Canada. The shortage of health-care workers — doctors, nurses and other clinical staff — is already impacting Niagara and has reached a critical point.

We don’t have enough physicians to continue operating as we always have.

Some people claim COVID-19 created this problem. I disagree. The pandemic exposed, and accelerated, challenges our industry has faced for years, even decades. Fewer health-care workers helping more and more people. Increased wait times. Burnout.

Because of these challenges, and the unique needs of Niagara’s growing and aging population, we are driving transformational change at Niagara Health, change that will increase our capacity, enhance patient care and encourage more people to pursue careers in health care in our community.

When it comes to health human resources, the ‘do nothing and hope for the best’ approach simply won’t work. We’ve made tough decisions to cope with staffing shortages, including temporarily closing the Port Colborne and Fort Erie urgent care centres. Most recently, an ongoing anesthesiologist shortage caused a wind-down of after-hours emergency surgeries at Welland hospital. For the past few summers, we’ve asked physicians to forgo vacations, work overtime and stretch themselves thin. We can’t keep doing that. We won’t.

Niagara Health is working to mitigate impacts to patient care, but these short-term actions are untenable in the long term. To manage the anesthesiologist shortage, we have explored other models of care, including deploying anesthesia assistants and supervised nurse sedation. Similar staffing pressures are being felt in general internal medicine and emergency departments where we are attempting to recruit physician assistants to work along-side physicians. And our organization is working closely with post-secondary institutions, including McMaster and Brock universities and Niagara College to help fill gaps in our workforce.

But without long-term solutions, the challenges we face will only fester, leading to more burnout, deteriorating service and less capacity.

There have been calls for a national plan to address this crisis and demands for increased government funding. But what good are more funds if there aren’t enough individuals looking for employment? What is certain is for meaningful solutions to actualize, we must take a collaborative, all-hands-on deck approach that includes officials from health associations, hospitals across Ontario and all levels of government.

At Niagara Health, we are charting a path forward to transform how we deliver services over the next decade. This path is focused on implementing a new, regional model and approach to care. It will allow us to make best use of the staff resources we have, while positioning us to attract more talent in the future.

This is our Transforming Care plan. It will build a leading, modern and responsive health system across three cornerstone hospitals in Welland, south Niagara and St. Catharines, allowing us to provide the right care at the right time, for everyone in Niagara.

At 1.3 million square feet (120,775 square metres) with almost 500 beds, the state-of-the-art south Niagara hospital will not only transform how we deliver care but will help attract the best and brightest. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to help recruitment, with local government and communities working with us to attract workers.

Today, we are doing everything we can to invest in our people. From deploying training and wellness programs, to leveraging innovative technology to reduce administrative burdens on our staff, Niagara Health is committed to championing solutions for health-care workers. And we are ready and eager to work with our partners to achieve our common goals.

Looking ahead, we must prioritize attracting more people to careers in health care while moving full steam ahead with our regional model to make best use of our front-line workers. The status quo is not enough to keep pace with demands on our system.

Through our Transforming Care plan, a resilient and robust health-care workforce is attainable. While we do everything we can, and work to reimagine health care in our region, we will continue to call on community leaders to come to the table and work with us to address the challenges we face.

Together, we will ensure Niagara continues to be the best place to live, work and raise a family.

Niagara Health System