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B.C.’s nurses support harm reduction, but call for additional safety measures

BC Nurses’ Union President Gear says ‘instances’ of illicit substance consumption happen around B.C.
B.C. Nurses Union Adriane Gear, here seen in Vancouver in 2023 when she was still vice-president, says nurses support harm reduction, but also want to see more safety measures amidst reports of nurses being harmed by their consumption in hospitals. (Black Press Media file photo) (Lauren Collins)

The BC Nurses’ Union wants a better balance struck between the needs of patients dealing with addiction and the safety of health care providers.

The issue gained attention after a leaked Northern Health memo instructing staff on how to deal with patients using substances in hospitals despite prohibitions.

“We don’t want people with addictions further stigmatized around this,” BCNU president Adriane Gear said. “We need appropriate harm reduction measures and strategies, but we also need to keep people providing the care safe and we can do that. But it does require the employer taking this (issue) seriously and developing appropriate policies, enforcing them and providing appropriate education, resources and support for people.”

“We need to work on the safety culture, period. There (are a) lot of things that injure and harm nurses in addition to illicit substance exposures, so let us take this opportunity to critically look at the situation.”

B.C. United has cited the memo — which says that ‘patients can use substances while in hospital in their room — as evidence of government creating “a free-for-all with open drug use” and calling for the end of decriminalization.

Gear confirmed instances of “illicit substances being consumed in various care settings”, but could not describe their extent.

“It’s difficult, but I can tell you that (Vancouver Island) has been a hotbed and WorkSafeBC has been involved. They have done inspections. They have issued orders.”

RELATED: Leaked memo sparks heated debate about drug use in northern B.C. hospitals

The Northern Health memo points to an “increase in admissions of patients with possession of substances and using substances while in hospital”. It tells staff that the decriminalization means they should neither be searching patients’ personal belongings for substances, nor taking them away if found.

“I can tell you that anecdotally, we did not hear from our members on this issue prior to decriminalization,” Gear said. “I’m not saying it never happened, but it certainly wasn’t something that was…reported to the extent that it is now.”

Gear said nurses support harm reduction, but not at the expense of their own personal safety” and warned of long-term consequences given B.C.’s nursing shortage.

“We can go ahead and recruit all the nurses we want,” she said. “If we are going to harm them, if we are not going to improve conditions of work, we are not going to retain them.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix Thursday reiterated that current policies prohibit the possession and use of substances in hospital environments.

“They are unequivocal and that doesn’t mean that they are easy to enforce,” Dix said. “Is it easy to enforce the rules on Ward Six of Hospital X? It’s not, of course, it’s not.”

Dix said that B.C. is taking every step to ensure nurses and other health professionals do not become police officers.

He pointed out that government has hired 320 “very significantly trained” relational security officers in 26 acute care hospitals, adding it is not the sole solution.

“This is not an issue of (decriminalization),” he added. “This is an issue of dealing with people in the health-care environment with severe illnesses.”

“When people come to hospital, we do everything we can to help them get better and to keep people safe. That will continue to be our policy every day.”

Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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