Comment: Nurses the backbone of our health-care system

For many Canadians, Labour Day is associated with the long weekend before school starts and the beginning of the end of another all-too-short summer.

As we rest in backyards, parks and on beaches this long weekend, let’s also remember the original reason why we have a Labour Day holiday — to celebrate workers.

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Labour Day in Canada dates back to 1872 with the first major demonstration of workers’ rights, which opened the door for the formation of trade unions across the country.

Since then, Labour Day has become a time to reflect on the gains the union movement has made for working people in Canada over the past 130-plus years. Unions helped to establish workers’ rights to fair wages, health benefits, employment insurance, vacation time and statutory holidays, all of which have raised the standard of living in Canada.

In this province, the B.C. Nurses’ Union plays an instrumental role in protecting and advancing the health, social and economic well-being of not just the 40,000 nurses and allied health-care employees we represent, but the communities in which we live and work.

Not only do nurses help promote quality health care, but they are advocates for social justice.

At the BCNU, we recognize that health is rooted in social, economic and environmental conditions. We support initiatives that fight injustice and move our society toward greater equity. That includes affordable housing and daycare, a clean environment, regular increases in the minimum wage and improved income supports and programs for the most vulnerable citizens.

Take, for example, the lack of accessible and affordable child care, which is a serious issue for an ever-growing number of B.C. families. We believe the lack of government leadership in addressing this crisis is one of the primary reasons for the growth of child poverty in our province. B.C. has the highest child-poverty rate in the country, which we find unacceptable. That’s why we support the campaign calling for a $10-a-day child-care plan across the province.

Recognizing that socio-economic status, social support and other factors create considerable health disparities, nurses across the province also advocate for equal access to housing, food, income security and health care. We do this in schools, addiction centres, on the streets and in mental health clinics — wherever there is a need.

However, this work is increasingly difficult to carry out, given the understaffing and excessive workloads faced by nurses today. A significant factor in workload stress for hospital, residential care and community nursing is work intensity, which escalates when hospitals are over capacity, resulting in shorter hospital stays and more complex health problems per patient.

The BCNU continues to fight to reduce workloads for its members. Reasonable workloads are associated with higher levels of patient safety. In our largest contract, for the first time ever, we were able to have included new language requiring health employers to backfill nurses who are on leave.

Still, the battle to protect patient care through more safe staffing levels continues. On Vancouver Island, nurses have been rallying and speaking out against the local health authority’s plan to replace nursing positions with care aides, which could put patients at risk.

As the largest group of health-care providers in B.C., nurses are the backbone of our health-care system. The quality of nursing care has a huge impact on a patient’s experience and, in many cases, can make the difference between life and death.

Nurses provide ongoing assessments of people’s health. Their round-the-clock presence, observation skills and vigilance make for better diagnoses and better treatments. Many lives have been saved because an attentive nurse noticed the early warning signs of an upcoming crisis such as cardiac arrest or respiratory failure.

In addition to saving lives, an increase in regulated nurse staffing levels saves money through decreased patient length of stay and fewer re-admissions. What’s more, when nurses’ workloads are balanced, they have higher rates of job satisfaction, mental and physical well-being and continuous employment. This reduces costs related to nurse burnout, absenteeism, recruitment and retention.

The provincial government has promised to provide funding for an additional 2,100 nurses by 2016, and the BCNU will work aggressively to ensure that happens.

As you enjoy this Labour Day, remember that nurses are on the job every day of the year, working to ensure quality patient care. Also, rest assured that our ongoing fight continues for social justice and improved community health.

Debra McPherson is the president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union.

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