Newfoundland and Labrador’s financial incentive for clinical psychologists hasn’t made a marked difference in filling vacancies, according to numbers obtained by CBC News. But the health minister says the province has turned a corner toward filling those gaps and keeping the psychologists they have.

Numbers obtained through an access to information request show N.L. Health Services’s eastern region has 23 vacant clinical psychology positions, central has five, western posted six and Labrador-Grenfell has two.

By comparison to numbers obtained last year, there’s an overall increase of three hires — two in eastern and one in western. 

“The status really hasn’t changed a whole lot at this point” said Gordon Piercey, president of the Association of Allied Health Professionals in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“I don’t think we’ve been real successful in bringing in a whole lot of new talent and I don’t think any of the people who left originally came back.”

There was a time in 2021 when Piercey was hearing of psychologists leaving every week, he said. That bleeding seems to have stopped — for now. 

Piercey credits a labour market adjustment of $15,000 given to psychologists last year for keeping the psychologists who are left. Those stipends, also known as temporary market adjustments, are limited-time offers made to help employers recruit and retain specific professionals in cases where demand outstrips supply. 

But issues surrounding workload, an increase in complex cases and a lack of autonomy persist.

“There are some things that are financially driven, [but] not everything is. We’re hearing a lot from psychologists wanting to work to their full scope — psychologists are highly skilled, highly trained in assessment, they’re able to diagnose,” said Piercey.

“So they want to be able to practice at that level as well and sometimes, depending on what’s happening inside their service area, they may or may not be able to do that in the manner they they would like to.”

There’s a shortage of clinical psychologists across the country, so to have increased it by three, we are headed in the right direction. Nowhere near enough, but we’re headed in the right direction.– Health Minister Tom Osborne

In response to crises in multiple facets of the health-care system, the province introduced financial incentives to draw professionals into vacancies. In January, Newfoundland and Labrador-born and -trained clinical psychologists were offered a $50,000 recruitment incentive for a three year return-in-service agreement. Non-residents were offered $25,000 for a three year return-in-service agreement. 

Health Minister Tom Osborne says over 100 health care professionals took the offer across the spectrum. But psychologists make up a small fraction of that number. 

A man smiles in a grey suit.
Health Minster Tom Osborne says a working group is being established, which will eventually provide him with a list of recommendations to improve working conditions for psychologists. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Despite just three vacant psychology positions having been filed, the health minister says it’s a sign that things are changing for the better. 

“If you look at six months ago compared to 18 months ago, we were losing clinical psychologists, so we’re now starting to increase the number,” Osborne said in an interview Tuesday.

“There’s a shortage of clinical psychologists across the country, so to have increased it by three, we are headed in the right direction. Nowhere near enough, but we’re headed in the right direction.”

Money isn’t everything

Pam Button, a clinical psychologist and executive member of the Association of Psychologists Newfoundland and Labrador, said the current complement of psychologists is not sustainable, with a recent survey showing an increase in reported burnout. 

The approach to keeping and recruiting psychologists has to go beyond the pocketbook, she said. 

“If they’re looking to come to Newfoundland, having a bonus or incentive can be a really beneficial addition to that, but I don’t think that it’s the main draw,” Button said.

“I think what you find is a lot of psychologists are working very, very hard, and they’re working at a very high level of demand.”

All of that trickles down to the patient, she said. 

A woman with auburn hair is wearing black and white.
Pam Button is a clinical psychologist in St. John’s. She is an executive member of the Association of Psychology in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Submitted by Pam Button)

“Focusing on having psychologists] stay in those jobs and be happy and working well in those jobs, being mentally well in those jobs, will then result in being able to clear some of those wait lists,” said Button.

“That continuity of care is something that has really been lost when there are these vacancies, when they’re shifting between positions, when specialists are being pulled off of their long-term service to offer short-term care.”

Working group being established

Meanwhile, Osborne said moves have been made to make public health positions as attractive as the private sector.

He points to the labour market adjustment, which Osborne said will potentially be pensionable. 

“We won’t sit on our hands, we will work on these issues,” he said.

“We have been focused on recruitment to get people working side by side, shoulder to shoulder with the people who’ve been lifting the load. We need to work on retention as well so we keep the individuals we have.”

Osborne said a working group made up of departmental officials, clinical psychologists and provincial health authority officials is being established to deal with retention. 

They will begin work as early as next month and eventually provide the minister with recommendations. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


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