Hiring more nurses could save money

Hospitals should focus on quality of care to prevent costly complications and longer stays

While there aren’t enough nurses to meet patient demand, cuts to nursing staffs continue across the country as hospitals try to balance their budgets.

Instead of focusing on cutting costs — either through layoffs, early retirement packages, or direct service cuts — Doris Grinspun would rather hospitals focus on improving the quality of care.

“There will come a time when we need to understand that quality care costs money,” said Grinspun, executive director of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO), the professional association representing nurses. “The evidence has shown without any shred of doubt that the more registered nurses you have, the more you prevent complications and the more early discharges you have. That saves money.”

Ontario is now short about 12,000 nurses according to the provincial nurses’ union, the Ontario Nurses’ Association.

To ease this staffing shortage, the RNAO has requested that the Ontario government help older nurses stay on the job longer to stem the loss of experienced nurses to early retirement.

Many nurses opt to retire at age 55 because of the physical demands of the job. To address this problem, Ontario has introduced a $28-million program to stop 1,700 nurses from leaving the profession early.

Under the new program, nurses will be able to spend 20 per cent of their work hours performing less physically demanding tasks that take advantage of their professional expertise — such as mentoring young nurses, educating patients and their families or advising on clinical issues.

“I think it’s an excellent initiative,” said Grinspun.

Deborah Tamlyn, president of the Canadian Nurses’ Association (CNA) agreed but cautioned that it’s not realistic to expect the program to retain all 1,700 nurses eligible to retire early next year.

“I think we need to monitor really closely how staff respond to the initiative,” said Tamlyn. “But it’s better to have such an initiative than not have one.”

While the number of nursing positions across the country has declined, the workload remains the same so the remaining nurses are working harder, which isn’t good for anyone.

“When you work nurses to 100 per cent of their capacity, you end up paying that through sick time,” said Grinspun. “Whereas if you have nurses working at 80- or 85-per-cent capacity, you save money because they’ll be healthier.”

Another option to help hospitals cut costs is to better utilize registered nurses, practical nurses and nurse practitioners to the full extent of their skills.

“They can then fill in for other providers that aren’t available or are quite costly,” said Tamlyn. “We need to make sure we’re maximizing their potential.”

Over the next few years, the number of nurses expected to retire will exceed the number of new nursing graduates, creating an even bigger strain on the health-care system.

The CNA represents 120,000 registered nurses across the country and 40,000 of them will be eligible to retire in the next five years. Unfortunately, only 10,000 new nurses are expected to graduate in that same time.

Tamlyn said it’s imperative that provinces invest in educating more nurses. That includes providing funding for more teachers and more facilities.

“Each province is trying to increase the number of nursing students, but we’re going to need to ramp that up over the next few years,” she said.

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