With medical staff complaining of stress, forced overtime, and low morale, the Order of Nurses is calling on the provincial government to improve working conditions -- and doctors are coming to their defence.

The spark for the recent debate was a Facebook post made in January by Emilie Ricard, who at one point was the only nurse caring for 70 people at a long-term care facility in Sherbrooke.

The post received 42,000 likes and 56,000 shares.

Many others are now joining in the call to act.

“We've never seen anything of that sort at the Order of Nurses. So many people calling, emailing and Facebooking, you name it. It's the nurses calling and the public calling,” said Lucie Tremblay, president of Quebec's Order of Nurses.

The Order of Nurses said that it is aware of many job openings throughout the province, and said it has heard from many people who are concerned that if they take on full-time work that they will be forced to work mandatory overtime.

The Order said that recently it has received a flood of phone calls from nurses saying they are unable to perform their tasks at an acceptable level and are failing to meet the standards set for their profession.

“They're caught between a rock and the hard place where they're so torn apart by the priorities and not being able to meet their professional standard,” said Tremblay.

Meanwhile the Order said that 1,200 nursing students have been unable to find internships, which is a crucial part not only of their education, but of the proper functioning of hospitals and medical facilities. The internships are unavailable because nurses are so busy, they no longer have time to train interns.


Doctors want their pay increases cancelled

Calls for change are just coming from the nurses – on Monday, at least 250 Quebec doctors and residents published an open letter asking the health ministry to cancel their pay raises.

They say patients would be better served if the money was reinvested in the health care system.

Isabelle Leblanc, president of the group behind the letter, said nurses, orderlies and other employees in the health-care system are working under awful conditions.

"Basically, the amount of money the Health Department has to run the system is finite," she said in an interview Monday.

"There's only a specific amount of money and not more, and the more you give to the physicians, the less you give to workers or to improve access (to the system)."

Leblanc admitted it was unusual for doctors to say they don't want more money.

"But I don't think it's that unusual for people to say 'the workplace we work in needs more money, put it there and don't put it in our pockets'," she said.

"We think it's going to help patients a lot more if the money is injected in the system, and not into the pockets of the physicians."

Premier Philippe Couillard's Liberal government recently concluded a deal with the province's 10,000 specialist doctors that would see their annual remuneration rise to $5.4 billion a year in 2023 from the current $4.7 billion.

They would also be entitled to various retroactive salary increases.

In 2016, the average salary of a specialist doctor in Quebec was $403,000, with radiologists leading the way with close to $700,000.

Last October, the government reached a deal with the province's general practitioners to give them an increase of roughly 1.8 per cent a year over eight years.

Health Minister Gaetan Barrette responded, saying if the doctors want to give back their raise, they can, adding that the deal with doctors is complete and now his priority is to focus on improving conditions for nurses.


Nurses want to be at the table

Tremblay said the Order of Nurses should be at the table for discussions about how to improve healthcare.

"We're going to talk with the ministry first, and I think that is important, and we're the only ones who have this knowledge about the scope of practice, and we're the only ones that have no other interest than the public interest," said Tremblay.

"We don't have union interests, we don't have economic interests, we don't have political interests, we have the interest of the public at heart."

The Order will be meeting with Barrette on Thursday to address its concerns.

In the past month the health ministry has announced it will increase the powers allotted to nurse practitioners.

Barrette has also held meetings with another union that represents nurses and medical staff, the FIQ, to discuss how to launch a pilot project in several hospitals and long-term care facilities in an attempt to improve the working conditions of nurses.

- With a report from Peter Rakobowchuk of The Canadian Press