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Nova Scotia threatens to sweep away patient care with nurses' right to strike

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Let me see if I understand this.

Capital District nurses have the legal right to strike. In February, they voted 90 per cent in favour of striking to back contract demands. But if they actually walk off their jobs, they will effectively -- and almost instantly -- lose that right. (See the McNeil government's legislation forcing striking home-care workers to return to their posts even before the ink on their picket signs was dry. McNeil will do the same if nurses down their stethoscopes.)

So what are their options?

The nurses could quit.

Oh… no, they can't.

After nurses voted overwhelming last week to resign en masse if ordered back to work, the health authority threatened to "take whatever legal action it feels appropriate to counteract such dangerous, unlawful behaviour."

Though the government feigns hands-off because the two sides are still theoretically negotiating, the premier himself weighed in, insisting resignations not be a "tool in collective bargaining… I find it hard to believe that they would walk away and leave vulnerable Nova Scotians at risk."

But that, of course, is exactly the issue.

The union wants mandated nurse-patient ratios because they say nurses are overworked and overstressed, a situation that compromises patient safety.

Capital Health -- under government-mandated stress to cut costs -- insists mandated ratios, which would require hiring more nurses, aren't a solution.

Both sides trot out contradictory reports from jurisdictions where ratios have been implemented -- Australia, California -- to buttress their arguments.

While that makes it hard for the rest of us to see the solutions for the statistics, what isn't in question is there is a problem.

According to one report, Canada's nurses are nearly twice as likely to be absent due to illness or injury than the average worker. Twenty percent of hospital nurses quit each year, with workload a key factor. U.S. studies have documented an "irrefutable association" between staffing levels and what are delicately referred to as "patient outcomes."

McNeil may legislate away health-care workers' right to strike, but we shouldn't let him sweep away this important issue with it.

The premier should appoint a task force -- with adequate nurse representation -- to examine the overall relationship between staffing and patient health. Its report should be public, completed quickly and its recommendations implemented.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: AmberinSeattle/flickr

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