Go north: Nurses offered $30K signing bonus to work in B.C. health region

Remote hospitals have been plagued by staffing shortages, leading to some emergency room closures, with northern B.C. communities suffering the worst of it.

To attract healthcare workers into rural communities, the Ministry of Health is offering $30,000 signing bonuses for positions in Northern Health (NH) and up to $20,000 for remote areas in other health authorities.

Eligible workers are required to sign a two-year return-of-service agreement.

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NH is using the funding to hire more emergency room registered nurses and licensed nurse practitioners.

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“We have been experiencing shortages with nursing, particularly in the emergency department areas,” said Emelyne Macfarlane, the health authority’s regional manager of recruitment services.

“We’re really hoping this incentive bridges those challenges and allows our staff to feel more supported because there’ll be more staff on the floor, and really kind of working collectively with the ministry to find out what can we do more to support our nurses and keep them engaged in the workforce because they’re a valuable asset to our health authority.”

Exodus of nurses

Macfarlane said the health authority has hired 257 nurses over the past 12 months, while nearly as many, 211, have left during the same period. She said 131 vacant positions will be eligible for the incentive.

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Danette Thomsen, a regional council member with the BC Nurses’ Union (BCNU), said any effort to bring more nurses to northern B.C. is welcome news.

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She said the University Hospital of Northern B.C. in Prince George, the largest acute care facility in the region, is seeing a 70 per cent vacancy rate in the ER, while other rural hospitals are seeing many positions needing to be filled.

But she said the bonus is just a band-aid solution.

“What are we going to do after the two-year return of service? We need to be able to change the workplace so that we can actually retain those nurses beyond that,” Thomsen said.

Survey paints staggering stats

A recent BCNU survey found half of nurses in Northern Health have been exposed to weapons, most of them had experienced physical violence and verbal or emotional abuse and 94 per cent were working short-staffed.

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Thomsen said she’d like to see violent patients be physically removed with the help of police.

“Nurses, like any other profession, deserve to be able to go to work and not fear for their lives,” she said.

Thomsen added the workplace can be toxic with nurses being denied days off while feeling pressured to work overtime due to staffing shortages.

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She said these realities are prompting many to contact her regularly about quitting.

The survey found 34 per cent of nurses are considering leaving nursing or are already planning on doing so.

“The health authorities need to step up. They need to actually deal with the issues that are causing nurses to leave in the first place because we can recruit all we want, if we’re not retaining who we have, it’s a vicious cycle,” Thomsen said.

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Macfarlane acknowledged the difficult work environment.

“We are hopeful that this incentive will bring in more staff which will then alleviate pressure and workload from existing staff members. It’ll reduce the vacancy amount which will allow our ERs to be open and functioning,” she said.

The incentive is available until March 31, 2025.

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