McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Lecture: Knowing number of public health nurses beneficial

By Suzanne Morrison
Published: March 20, 2008
John Basmajian

For the first time, the number of public health nurses in Canada is being documented by researchers at McMaster University - critical information to have on hand should another outbreak like SARS occur.

Of the 320,248 nurses in Canada, 50,557 work in community health positions, according to data compiled by McMaster’s Nursing Health Services Research Unit (NHSRU).

Jane Underwood, lead author of the study, said knowing the number of public health nurses, a sub sector of community health nursing would avoid the confusion common during SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) when nurses were catapulted into new jobs at a moment’s notice.

Underwood will present her study, Counting Public Health Nurses in Canada, on Monday, March 24 from 1 to 1.30 p.m. in HSC – 2J13.

"It’s difficult to estimate how many nurses might be needed when no-one knows what public health crisis will hit in the future," she said. "As well, we are not using public health nurses to their full capacity so how do we know how many we will need if we don’t optimize the ones we have."

The data was compiled from annual nursing registration data collected by provinces and territories and housed in a centralized data base with the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) in Ottawa. It was cross-tabulated with statistics on nurses working in community health centres, doctors’ offices and in occupational health jobs as well as those who are self-employed or working with private nursing agencies.

Andrea Baumann, Co-Director NHSRU and co-investigator on the study said there is a concern Canada will not be able to meet the demand for skilled public health and community health nurses, given an aging nursing workforce and predicted nursing shortage.

In his recent annual report, Ontario’s auditor general said the province was not prepared to respond to an outbreak of an infectious disease due to a lack of surge capacity in hospitals, staffing vacancies in local public health units and insufficient space to quarantine a significant number of patients.

Similar concerns were raised in early March in the United States after the Association of Schools of Public Health issued a report saying the United States is facing a major public health workforce crisis.

Underwood’s study, which covers the 10-year period 1996 – 2006 provides Canadian planners with important information to assist them in future nursing recruitment and deployment strategies.

Half of the funding for the $800,000 study was provided by the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation with matching funds from Health Canada.  The British Columbia ministry of health, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and McMaster’s Nursing Health Services Research Unit provided additional funding.
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