02/22/2018 13:32 EST | Updated 02/22/2018 14:00 EST

Audit calls for action to recruit more nurses in remote and rural B.C.

VICTORIA — Nurses are burning out in rural and remote parts of British Columbia and patient safety is at risk, says the province's auditor general.

Carol Bellringer said recruitment and retention issues affect two thirds of the province, which is home to 300,000 residents who receive a majority of their care from nurses.

She released a report Thursday, saying that as of April 2017, Northern Health was short 121 registered nurses, or 15 per cent of its workforce, and over a quarter of nurse practitioner positions were left unfilled.

Weather, isolation and limited amenities contribute to the shortages, Bellringer said, adding that it's unclear whether measures taken to improve the situation have succeeded.

"Unfortunately, Northern has not evaluated the effectiveness of key recruitment and retention programs and practices, nor has it tracked routine performance metrics. So we don't know if these are working."

Orientation programs differ from site to site and should be standardized, and managers need more training so staff don't leave to work elsewhere, Bellringer said.

Nine recommendations listed in the report include a call for the health authority to work with communities and the government to expand temporary and long-term affordable housing options in rural and remote areas.

Bellringer also called for the University of Northern B.C. and the province to work with the health authority to consider ways of providing nursing education programs that may address recruitment challenges.

"There is research indicating that areas close to a nursing school enjoy a greater supply of registered nurses," she said.

The report also calls on Northern Health to work with the B.C. Nurses' Union to address the recruitment and retention of nurses.  

David Williams, vice-president of human resources for Northern Health, said he accepts the report's recommendations and work is underway to increase recruitment in the region.

There are incentives already available, he added, including a payment of $74 a month to offset the cost of living.

Williams said the University of Northern B.C., in Prince George — the only community excluded from the audit — offers a registered nurses program and training is also available through community colleges in Terrace and Quesnel.

However, he said no program is available in the northeastern part of the province, though efforts are underway to change that.

"If we have northern people interested in health going to school in the north to become nurses, and other health-care professionals, the likelihood of working with us and staying with us is increased," he said.

"We have recruiters and health-care professional manager go out to high schools to talk about all the different kinds of careers you can have in health care."

However, Williams said remote areas elsewhere in Canada are facing similar challenges and nurses are in short supply globally.