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Use of agency nurses increasing

By Randy Thoms Dec 6, 2023 | 4:13 PM

Ontario's Acting Auditor General Nick Stavropoulos presents his annual report at Queen's Park, December 6, 2023.

Ontario’s Acting Auditor General says a province-wide strategy is needed to address the shortage of nurses in the province’s hospitals.

Nick Stavropoulos says it was one of the main reasons behind many of this year’s hospital closures.

He identified over 200 closures over the past year related to a lack of nurses, doctors and other factors.

He also found many hospitals turning to staffing agencies to fill positions temporarily in their nursing ranks.

It has also led to an increase in the use of agency nurses, especially in northern Ontario.

“What we noticed was the use of agency nurses increased by 25 times in northern hospitals. When we looked at the number of hours, there were 15,000 hours of agency nurses used prior to the pandemic, and now we’re using 391,000 hours,” says Stravropoulos.

Stravropoulos says while agency nurses are a temporary solution, it comes at a cost.

He says their use costs two to three times more than would be paid to have full-time permanent nurses.

The nursing shortage has also led to an increase in hospital emergency room wait times.

“When we looked at the emergency departments, the backlog for wait time increased. It was quite stable prior to the pandemic, about an hour-and-a-half wait time. Since COVID, post-COVID, we noted that the wait time increased by about 30 minutes.”

He says the Ministries of Health and Long-Term Care need to address the nursing shortage as quickly as possible.

Health Minister Sylvia Jones says the government is taking action with short, medium and long-term solutions.

“We have 15,000 nurses who were registered in Ontario last year, a historic high. We now have 30,000 students in the pipeline being trained today to be able to serve and work in those roles. And I think, ultimately, what we need to do is keep putting the pressure on the College of Nurses of Ontario to quickly assess, review, and ultimately license, when appropriate, internationally educated,” says Jones.

The province also moved to make it easier for registered nurses trained elsewhere in Canada to work in Ontario.

Jones disputes suggestions that the use of agency nurses is on the rise.

“Previously, we had about 3.8% of the nurses who are registered in Ontario list staffing agencies as their employer. We’re now down to almost a full percentage of 2.9%. So we’re seeing a decrease in the usage,” says Jones.

Jones says there are some hospitals and long-term care homes that need that ability to pull in additional staff when they have increased need, and she does not want to limit their ability to access when needed.