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Painful Truth: Our health and emergency systems need more slack

From nurses to social workers, we can’t run lean when it comes to essentials

You know what would be reassuring to see when you walked onto a hospital ward (back when you could walk onto a hospital ward, I mean).

Nurses doing paperwork. Just a couple nurses at the desk, maybe having a coffee, chatting a bit.

No alerts going off, no patients being ignored. Plenty of nurses still going about their rounds and attending to patients. But each of them having time to take a break, get a bit of down time, do the less-essential parts of their jobs.

And if there was a major emergency on that ward, you’d know there would be plenty of professionals to handle it, and take care of all the regular work, as well.

When it comes to some jobs, the proper number of staff to have is, and always should be, “more than are strictly needed.”

Firefighters, nurses, doctors, paramedics, social workers, electrical line repair workers, teachers, lifeguards – there are some jobs where more is always better.

But we don’t do things that way.

Many of these jobs are funded by the taxpayer, one way or another.

So there’s always an incentive for governments to economize on how many they hire. Even adding extra RCMP, generally popular even with people who don’t want their taxes to go up, can provoke sharp debates due to the high cost.

But even beyond taxes, there are other reasons why our society hates having any extra capacity in our vital services.

We’ve become enthralled to the cult of efficiency.

Lean work forces. Rapid hiring and firing. Short-term contracts. Low inventory and just in time delivery.

What the business world does in search of profit becomes a philosophy, and it creeps into the public sector, too.

The idea that there should be just enough staff to handle the workload is insidious.

Just enough nurses to staff a ward? Cheaper! More efficient! And the nurses are run off their feet, of course. They’re run down. They’ll get sick more often, injured more often, we all know that’s what happens when people are stressed out. And then there won’t be enough nurses because the system has no slack in it. The remaining nurses have to work harder to cover the shortfall.

Adding surplus to our supply of emergency workers is going to be key in the coming years. We’ve seen in the last year and a half what happens when our medical and wildfire fighting systems get put under pressure. It wasn’t fun, and it could have been worse.

It doesn’t have to be a tough sell, and it doesn’t have to mean people standing around doing nothing.

Setting targets for training and hiring would be a start. We could also create a kind of reserve system, where members of the public are trained, and paid for their training and temporary service, to act as a buffer when things go wrong.

The important thing is that we recognize that we can’t run every single service as if it’s a lean profit-making enterprise.

Spending more, employing more skilled people who can respond to major emergencies, has to be a priority in a world where an emergency is always imminent.

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Matthew Claxton

About the Author: Matthew Claxton

Raised in Langley, as a journalist today I focus on local politics, crime and homelessness.
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