Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé has given himself a year to fix staffing shortages in the province's beleaguered health-care system, he told the Coalition Avenir Québec youth caucus this weekend.
Dubé said he wants the network to undergo "mammoth" changes that would reform several areas, at the meeting in Quebec City on Saturday.
He said his intention is to table a health care bill that would include ways to attract nurses back to the public system, which now has about 4,000 nursing positions to fill.
"My mission is to make health workers feel proud of the health network and for them to want to stay in it, or come back to it," Dubé said.
Earlier this month, at a COVID-19 update for the province, Premier François Legault announced his government's intention to create incentives for nurses who had left the public system to return.
He said the government is trying to come up with ways to convince people who have left the profession to come back, by potentially introducing incentives including increasing pay and improving working conditions.
At the CAQ youth meeting, Dubé didn't provide details about what would be in the bill or what those incentives would be, but said he wants to tackle sore spots, like forced overtime and the "massive" use of private staffing agencies.
He also said he wouldn't tear down and rebuild the bureaucratic structures, like the Quebec Liberal government was heavily criticized for doing in 2015.
On Thursday, another Quebec hospital said it had to close its ER overnight as six out of 10 nurses scheduled for the shift had not showed up due to exhaustion.
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The ER at Suroît Hospital in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield was already running on a shortage of nurses, typically needing 14 of them for the overnight shift.
The head of the union representing nurses in the region, Mélanie Gignac, said one of the nurses had recently been forced to work four 16-hours shifts in a row.
Suroît wasn't the first ER in the province to close temporarily, curtail hours or operate at more than 200 per cent capacity due to a lack of personnel since the beginning of the pandemic, as nurses decry how dismal working conditions have become.
'Holding by a thread'
Dr. Abdo Shabah, a Quebec emergency physician on the board of directors for the Canadian Medical Association, says he's never heard of such strain on the network.
"The health-care system is actually holding by a thread," Shabah said, noting any decisions about major changes need to be made with caution because of the "unprecedented levels of stress and burnout."
"Hopefully those changes will have a great impact on the health-care system, but we're actually in the middle of crisis and any change will come and put a little bit more burden on the system."
Shabah isn't the only one wary of reforms. Amy Ma, the secretary of the patients' committee and the McGill University Health Centre, says changes are "overdue and necessary" but have to be carefully thought through.
"Any reforms to the health workforce must absolutely be centered around the needs of the most marginalized — we're talking about racialized communities, Indigenous people and people with disabilities, to name a few," Ma said.
She said the backlog of elective surgeries is of several thousand at the MUHC alone, and that it includes some from the beginning of the pandemic.
"The pandemic has just blown everything up," she said.
Shabah said more and more COVID patients are taking up services, and putting pressure on emergency rooms. He urged people who have been hesitant to get vaccinated to do so.
"Get your shot because this will save your live, save the life of your loved ones and save stress on the system," Shabah said.