Chief Nursing Officer just what the doctor ordered for a health care system in chaos

The decision to reactivate the CNO role is a sign the federal government "has listened, heard what we've had to say, and values the input that we bring," says head of the Canadian Nurses Association.

Maija Kappler 4 minute read February 3, 2022
Doctors in a meeting at hospital

The hope is that once a chief nursing officer is instated, the staffing crisis will be the first priority. GETTY

Canada is finally getting a chief nursing officer (CNO) — again.

The decision to re-instate the CNO role indicates to nurses that the federal government “has listened, heard what we’ve had to say, and values the input that we bring,” says Tim Guest, president of the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA). “I think it will be helpful for nurses who are currently in a very fragile and challenging place because of the significant pressure that’s been placed on them to just support Canadians during the pandemic.”

The CNO is someone who speaks for nurses when advising the federal government on health policy. The role has been filled only intermittently over the last decade and a half, and was finally axed by Stephen Harper’s government, Guest says. But in the last few years — and especially during the pandemic — many nursing groups, including the CNA and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO), had been calling for job to be re-instated.

“Canada would be a healthier country if nurses and nursing had a voice in our federal government,” RNAO’s Grinspun, and RNAO president Morgan Hoffarth wrote in an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in summer 2020.

On Tuesday, the federal government posted a listing for the job, which is described as a two-year commitment with the possibility of extension.

Guest says nurses are so important to health policy because of the breadth of their experience.

“Nurses work in hospitals, in long-term care, mental health,  public health, in the education system, in occupational health and safety, prisons — we work in all types and facets of Canadian society,” he says. “Nurses are one of the few health care providers that work across all of these sectors in a fairly major way, and have a fairly significant interaction with the the public living in Canada, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So I think we have a good handle on the perspective of the public and what the public needs in order to advocate for them.”

Guest also believes that Canadians would have seen a different pandemic had there been a CNO to oversee things like the vaccine rollout.

“I strongly believe that had there been a chief nursing officer role in place prior to the pandemic, decision-making could have happened much sooner,” he says.

Remember the “Hunger Games”-esque rush for vaccine appointments when spots first opened up last spring? Guest says that vaccines could have been given out much more quickly if a CNO had advised the government to let nurses administer vaccinations.

“Nurses have the ability to determine whether an individual is appropriate for a vaccine, and administer it to expedite access,” he said, noting that some provinces have since taken that route. He adds that expanding nurses’ scope of practice to let them prescribe medications could also could lessen the strain on overloaded hospitals and family doctors.

‘It’s not that the government dismissed nurses’

It’s not that the government dismissed nurses, says Guest. “They did ask for our input and perspective, [but] that could have been expedited with [a nursing] voice at the table.”

It’s a crucial time for federal support for nurses, who were already burned out from job shortages and labour issues before the start of the pandemic in March 2020. And as we approach the third year of the pandemic, staffing shortages are threatening the health care system across the country. Job vacancies in health care rose by nearly 40 per cent from 2020 to 2021, according to Statistics Canada, with the most need for registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses, nurses aides, and practical nurses.

Guest is hoping that once a chief nursing officer is instated, the staffing crisis will be the first priority.

“We have a significant health workforce crisis, and we need a national approach for how we’re going to deal with that,” he says, adding that re-evaluating the regulation of internationally-educated nurses, so that they can work in Canada, could be a big part of that.

“I also hope that they will continue to impact decisions at the government level with respect to how we continue to manage the pandemic and how we manage to get the systems operating again post-pandemic,” he says. “Hundreds of thousands of people have missed procedures, missed diagnostic tests. It’s going to take a significant period of time to to catch that all up.”

Maija Kappler is a reporter and editor at Healthing. You can reach her at mkappler@postmedia.com
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