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Advocates speak out about radiation therapist shortage in New Brunswick

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Advocates and patients in New Brunswick are speaking out this week regarding a shortage of radiation therapists in Saint John.

Jennifer Carey, the Atlantic manager for the Canadian Association of Medical Radiation Technologists, says it’s a situation that has been slowly evolving over the last year, but it’s getting worse.

“At the Saint John Regional Cancer Centre, there should be 28 full time positions for radiation therapists. Right now they have seven vacancies. They have two radiation therapists who are on maternity leave. They have three radiation therapists who are on some sort of long-term leave, medical leave. They have no casuals and no students who are anticipated to stay and work,” says Carey.

“That’s a huge part of their staffing component that’s vacant.”

Carey says she doesn’t think patients have seen the full impact yet, but it’s getting to a point where it’s starting to compromise the national benchmarks that are set across Canada when it comes to treatment timeframes.

Robin White was diagnosed with breast cancer in September and she’s currently experiencing treatment delays.

“It’s awful. It’s surprising to me because everything went so smoothly and so quickly. Before, I thought, ‘Wow, our healthcare system’s amazing… and then boom, it was just nothing, and being told it’s going to be a month, possibly more of a delay, that was a bit of a shocker,” says White.

Originally, she was told she would start radiation as soon as she was healed from her lumpectomy, meaning she should be about halfway through her treatments right now.

“Right when I was expecting to get a phone call to say, ‘We can start you now,’ it was at that point that they said, ‘Oh no, we’re running about a month behind,’” she said.

Earlier this week, she finally received dates for her treatment.

“I had to keep calling. I had to call my nurse navigator. I had to keep calling the oncology department because I knew that I had things I had to take care of and… I had just had a lumpectomy, not a mastectomy, and my cancer was slightly aggressive. I wanted these to get on their way,” she said.

Liberal MLA Rob McKee says one of the main reasons for the staffing shortage is money.

“They were not part of the eight per cent wage increase that the Medical Sciences Professionals contract received when the rest of the profession did. They did not receive it,” he said in the legislative assembly on Thursday.

On top of that, Carey says both Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are offering signing bonuses and New Brunswick isn’t keeping up.

“New Brunswick is no longer competitive with the rest of the Maritime provinces. I think, as Atlantic Canadians, we’re used to competing with larger provinces, like Ontario and Alberta, but we are now competing with each other,” she says.

“For instance, in the last few months, Newfoundland has initiated radiation therapy into their Come Home Incentive. If you have ties to Newfoundland, you can come and get a $30,000 signing bonus. If you don’t have ties to Newfoundland, you can get a $10,000 signing bonus.”

She adds the signing bonus for Nova Scotia is $5,000 plus higher hourly wages.

Meanwhile, N.B. Health Minister Bruce Fitch remains positive.

“I can ensure the member across the way that cancer treatment in Saint John will continue, Mr. Speaker, and this is where, again, we work with the (Regional Health Authorities) to commission them to work with a recruitment team that’s been created in the department of health,” he said in response to McKee on Thursday.

“We’ve created the human resource department, and they are coordinating the recruitment effort of the (Regional Health Authorities). The (Regional Health Authorities) are the ones that sign the contracts.”

CTV News reached out to Horizon Health Network for an interview or comment on Friday, but no one was made available.

Carey says about 50 per cent of cancer patients will need to receive radiation therapy as part of their treatment.

“It’s unbelievable when you think there’s only two places that provide radiation, Moncton and Saint John, in all of New Brunswick. So who am I, this one little person that has to have the radiation versus all the other people that also have to, so that’s kind of scary to me, that there’s only two locations so this should be top priority,” said White.

“This should be addressed immediately.”

For more New Brunswick news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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