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Health

NWT releases new plan to address healthcare staffing shortages

Last modified: June 3, 2022 at 8:46pm


The NWT government on Friday rolled out a new human resources plan designed to recruit and retain more healthcare workers in the Northwest Territories.

The plan is the territory’s latest proposal to attract more people to work in healthcare and create a working environment that will compel them to stay once they’re in the door.

In the three-year plan – which the GNWT said had started in 2021, despite being publicized only on Friday – the Department of Health and Social Services highlights initiatives intended to reduce vacancy rates and turnover and increase representation of Indigenous and northern communities in the healthcare workforce.

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“We want to build a robust and representative workforce that better reflects the people it serves. This plan helps us take a big step toward achieving that goal,” said health and social services minister Julie Green in a news release.

Challenging working conditions in recent years have led to staff shortages across the territory and low morale among those that haven’t quit.

In November, more than a dozen healthcare workers sent a letter to all 19 MLAs describing poor working conditions and inadequate senior management, and asking government officials to do more.

While the situation was exacerbated by pandemic-induced pressures on the healthcare industry nationwide, challenges in NWT staff morale existed prior to Covid-19.

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According to the department, turnover rates were high due to intensified workloads, demands that staff accommodate constantly shifting priorities, and increasingly competitive opportunities across the country.

The plan unveiled on Friday is the territory’s attempt to address those challenges, but not many specifics were offered and most initiatives offered as concrete actions were already under way.

Activities that have been ongoing include:

  • exit surveys for those leaving the workplace, launched last summer;
  • targeted academic support programs to help staff receive additional training for specialized positions;
  • an ongoing review of systemic barriers to hiring more Indigenous staff within the territory; and
  • targeted advertising campaigns to reach new recruits.

“We want to be providing great pathways for northern and Indigenous people to be finding good careers in the health and social services system,” said Kyla Kakfwi-Scott, the department’s director of community, culture and innovation.

“But we also want to make sure that people who are coming from other places are able to really grow in their connection to this place, and to learn about people in the cultures that they’re living in and with.”

‘Just listening’

Above all, the territory’s plan promises greater communication with front-line workers about the kinds of support needed to develop “informed, evidence-based decisions related to the workforce and workforce planning.”

Promised improvements to safety, wellness and mental health supports for staff will primarily include “listening,” said the department’s director of corporate and support services, Tim VanOverliw.

“A large section of this plan is really about enhancing the amount of listening we’re doing to staff but, more importantly, once hearing some of those areas of concern, actioning them,” he said.

“Over the last several months, there have been several engagement sessions and dedicated resources to go out and really talk, and start to listen to staff, around some of the areas where they want to see change.”

Aside from this, VanOverliw said, changes might include flexibility around scheduling to give staff greater work-life balance and offer opportunities to “develop and have space in their day-to-day.”

More marketing

Department officials pointed to increased traffic on social media pages and the PracticeNWT website as evidence that recruitment campaigns are drawing more attention to healthcare opportunities in the territory, and plan to develop further targeted marketing campaigns.

Whether this attention is translating to increased recruitment was not clear.

A news release announcing the plan quoted Green, the health minister, as saying it supported her government’s “mandate to increase the number of resident healthcare professionals by at least 20 percent.”

The territory’s 19 MLAs committed to this target in 2020. The operational responsibility of executing this commitment falls in the lap of the health department.

Asked by Cabin Radio for an update on progress toward that target – with a year of the government’s life remaining – no number was given.

Staff charged with presenting the plan said while the plan will help the territory work toward achieving that 20-percent target, there is no direct link between initiatives introduced in this plan and existing recruitment targets.

“Basically, a lot of these activities are really going to drive improvement of that target,” said VanOverliw.

“The plan doesn’t necessarily have any targets related to that outcome measure.”

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