Alberta urged to create chief nursing officer position to help fix health system

As Alberta looks to relieve pressure on its stressed health system, nurses are calling on the freshly re-elected provincial government to bring in a chief nursing officer to work alongside its chief medical officer of health.

The position was reinstated at the federal level last year, a decade after it was eliminated.

Nurses want Alberta to follow suit.

“It’s so important we have that nursing voice in decision making,” said Kathy Howe, executive director of the Alberta Association of Nurses.

“[This is] someone that the government can rely on for accurate information, someone who can advocate for nursing and someone who can bring that whole picture, so it’s not skewed just from a medical perspective.”

Nurses, who are face-to-face with patients everyday, can provide valuable insight, Howe said.

Kathy Howe looks at the camera.  She's wearing a read scarf.
Kathy Howe is the executive director of the Alberta Association of Nurses. (Kathy Howe)

“There are other provinces who have a chief nursing officer, like Ontario and Saskatchewan, and this is a role that Albertans need,” she said.

Howe will be asking to meet with the government to discuss the idea in the next few weeks and hopes to see action by fall. The province says no policy decisions will be made until a new cabinet is in place.

‘Quick wins’

Appointing a chief nursing officer would be a “quick win” for the province, according to Jennifer Jackson, an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s faculty of nursing.

“It would show a gesture of goodwill toward health care professionals and also it would show that the current government is serious about improving care for patients.”

Because nurses deliver care every day, Jackson said, they can advocate for patients, identify policy change implications and share insights on key issues including youth mental health, palliative care, addictions and vaccine uptake.

According to Jackson, the position could help Alberta navigate its staffing shortage crisis at a time when many nurses are burned out and leaving the front lines.

“We make up the largest proportion of the professionalized workforce in Alberta. We need to have a seat at the policy table.”

Jennifer Jackson is standing in front of a red background, wearing a white blouse, in this profile photo.
Jennifer Jackson teaches in the faculty of nursing at the University of Calgary (Supplied by Jennifer Jackson)

‘Way overdue’

“This is a step that’s way overdue. It’s beyond urgent,” said Ivy Bourgeault, director of the Canadian Health Workforce Network.

According to Bourgeault, chief nursing officers were more common 10 or 20 years ago, and are regaining ground as Canadian provinces battle heath workforce crises.

“The chief medical officer is not necessarily taking into consideration medical workforce issues, they are focused on public health, on preventive issues.”

Bourgeault argues that in addition to chief medical officers of health, which she would like to see re-labelled as “chief public health officers” to reflect their mandate, provinces should have an office dedicated to health system and workforce capacity.

That could be rolled into the mandate of a chief nursing officer or it could be handled by a chief health workforce officer, she said.

“Every province, every health system, needs to have both of those so that we are ensuring that we have the capacity to meet changing population health needs,” said Bourgeault, a professor in the school of sociological and anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa.

Because the nursing profession is predominantly made up of women, Bourgeault argues a chief nursing officer would also ensure women are fairly represented in decision making.

“There’s that intertwined nature of being at the table and making sure women’s voices are at the table, as nurses, not just as physicians and other representatives,” she said.

“Today is late. But today is a good time to start.”