Jamaica Says U.S. And Others Are 'Poaching' Its Nurses

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Jamaica is facing a crisis as specialized nurses leave the island to take jobs in North America and Europe.

The exodus has forced Jamaican hospitals to reschedule some complex surgeries because of a lack of nursing staff on their wards.

James Moss-Solomon, the chairman of the University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, says the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom are, in his words, "poaching" Jamaica's most critical nurses.

"Specialist nurses is the problem. We have tons of regular nurses," he says.

He's talking about nurses trained to work in such settings as intensive care units, operating theaters and emergency rooms. They're the ones being lured away. Moss-Solomon says it's very hard to replace them.

"We do very good training of specialist nurses here," he says. "We train them at a fraction of the cost of what it costs you in the United States or Canada or the U.K.. So it's an economic issue. There's a great saving [for foreign countries] in just poaching instead of training."

Moss-Solomon says the exodus is crippling hospitals across Jamaica. Last week his hospital was forced to cancel several complex elective surgeries because it didn't have the staff to handle the procedures.

Jamaica has tried to re-staff those wards by offering free training for nurses to get advanced degrees. The nurses agree to work for three or four years in Jamaica in exchange for the heavily-subsidized education. But those efforts have backfired as foreign recruiters have snapped up the newly minted specialists the moment they graduate. The nurses are slapped with a fine of typically $5,000-$6,000 if they skip their in-country service. But the recruiting agencies simply pay off the obligation.

Kevin Allen, the CEO of the University Hospital of the West Indies, says Jamaica simply can't compete with the deep pockets of hospitals in North America and Europe.

The starting salary for a nurse in Jamaica is less than $8,000 a year. With some specialized training and working overtime, she (and the island's nurses are almost all women) could possibly make up to $20,000 a year. Recruiters are offering two to three times that to take a job in the U.S. or London.

About 200 of the country's 1,000 specialist nurses left the country last year, says Janet Coore-Farr, the head of the Nurses Association of Jamaica. She says this hemorrhaging of nursing staff has continued in the first week of 2017.

In one 500-bed hospital, ten nurses have left since the new year, she says, "and more are leaving. And these nurses are trained in accident and emergency."

As more nurses leave, the work load grows even heavier for those who stay behind. Coore-Farr says many nurses in Jamaica are now regularly expected to work double shifts, which might make some of them think about taking a job in Phoenix or Toronto.

"There's no retention strategy for the nurses who are here," she says. "We feel quite frankly that nobody cares. But it's a serious problem."

The Jamaican Minister of Health says he does recognize the huge problem the island is facing with the loss of nurses. In the short term, University Hospital of the West Indies is bringing in 25 nurses next month from Cuba to help staff some wards and has plans to recruit nurses from India and the Philippines in what's become a crazy global race that extends far beyond Jamaica to snap up health care professionals.

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