Doctors, nurses to fill staffing gaps in program for sexual assault survivors

A program struggling to serve sexual assault victims in Winnipeg is getting temporary help from a group of physicians and other nurses after more than half of its nurses quit this week.

The sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) program has been unable to deliver on plans to provide 24/7 coverage since the provincial government promised an expanded version of the program at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre 11 months ago.

It has struggled to find staff, relying on a pool of casual nurses who work full-time in other areas and pick up shifts in the program.

As a result, it has endured stretches with no coverage, and some sexual assault victims were told to not shower and return later, because no one was available to examine them.

Seven of the 13 nurses in the casual pool quit this week because they were overwhelmed, stretched thin and disillusioned, the union said.

On Thursday, Jennifer Cumpsty, executive director of acute health services at HSC, told reporters a significant number of physicians and nurse practitioners have stepped forward to help out.

“We will be able to commit to filling those gaps as best we can,” she said, but she could not say how many hours each week the program remains unstaffed.

“We’re still looking at what our gaps are right now.”

Cumpsty is meeting on Thursday with the seven nurses who quit to get a better understanding of their reasons and whether there is any chance they might reconsider.

It has been reported that four resigned Tuesday and another two on Wednesday. Cumpsty said she learned Thursday morning that another had quit but she was not clear on when that happened.

The program has been around for a “very long time” and was always supported by casual nurses, and there has often been gaps, Cumpsty said.

The intention is, once the 24-hour program is fully up and running, those gaps will no longer exist, she said.

The province announced in April 2022 that it would expand the program to be 24/7, hire full-time nurses and train them as forensic nurse examiners, and hire a provincial co-ordinator to ensure nurses at satellite sites outside of Winnipeg are also properly trained.

The expanded program was supposed to be up and running by late 2022 or early 2023, but met hiring challenges.

The new positions have since been turned into permanent part-time, not full-time, Cumpsty said. That came at the suggestion of the nurses in the casual pool who felt full-time positions would be too much because of the trauma involved in working with victims.

Cumpsty said six of seven nurses have been hired. Five of those are still completing the “complex” training to learn how to collect evidence of sex assaults and support the victims.

One group should be ready by the beginning of June and the second by mid-July. A sixth nurse is already trained, having been hired from the casual pool.

A woman with wavy black hair and wearing a floral-patterned scarf looks at the camera while listening to a question.
Health Minister Audrey Gordon says the plan to bring in doctors and nurses to fill gaps in the sexual assault nurse examiner program is ‘a good workaround.’ (Travis Golby/CBC)

“It takes a while to staff up a provincial program,” Cumpsty said.

“We’ve been working through the various steps to get that done. There’s a lot of education that needs to happen for these nurses. It’s a very specialized type of nursing.”

The ultimate goal is still to have a provincial program, she said.

The nurses’ union has said one of the reasons some nurses recently quit was because they didn’t get offered the permanent positions, but Cumpsty contested that on Thursday.

“We did offer positions to all the casual nurses that did apply,” she said. “We had one accept.”

Health Minister Audrey Gordon, speaking at a separate news conference later Thursday morning, said she had nothing more to add to what Cumpsty already told reporters about how staffing and service shortages are being addressed.

She called the plan to bring in doctors and nurses “a good workaround” but said she will only be satisfied “when the program is fully up and running and fully staffed.”

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