6 Central Health emergency rooms received 26,000 visits in a year despite chronic staffing issues

·3 min read
Six emergency rooms in Central Health were closed for about 60 days in July, according to press releases from the regional health authority. (Katie Breen/CBC - image credit)
Six emergency rooms in Central Health were closed for about 60 days in July, according to press releases from the regional health authority. (Katie Breen/CBC - image credit)
Katie Breen/CBC
Katie Breen/CBC

Six emergency rooms in Central Health received more than 26,000 collective visits in one year, according to documents obtained by CBC News — despite multiple service interruptions due to staffing shortages.

An access-to-information request shows that from July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022, emergency rooms in Buchans, Baie Verte, Harbour Breton, New-Wes-Valley, Fogo Island and Springdale received a monthly average of about 363 visitors each.

Dr. Todd Young works at Green Bay Health Centre in Springdale, a community of about 2,971, where the emergency room received about 5,769 visits over the past year. Young said the volume of emergency room visits in Springdale has become "exhausting."

"It's a combination of a number of factors, but those numbers are not surprising. Matter of fact, we're feeling it every day on the ground," Young said this week.

According to the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, about 125,000 residents don't have a family doctor, and Young said that physician shortage is contributing to the high volume of emergency room visits.

Young said patients are coming to the emergency room in Springdale for routine tests, like blood work, or to get prescriptions filled.

"Those types of things certainly make up a larger proportion than they would traditionally have done so in the past," he said. "I think it's a last-ditch kind of effort to to get care."

Young said some patients who don't have a family doctor are going without care for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses — but are eventually forced to go to the emergency room.

"When they do present, boy, they're sicker than ever," he said. "We're seeing a lot of patients that are presenting later and sicker than we usually do."

'A last-ditch effort'

Young said the emergency room doesn't turn anyone away — but maintaining staffing is a struggle.

CBC News added up emergency room closures announced by Central Health in July, and the emergency room in Springdale was closed for a collective seven days because of short staffing. Any patients needing emergency care during the closures were diverted a hour away to Grand Falls-Windsor.

Colleen Connors/CBC
Colleen Connors/CBC

Young said diverting emergency services is "a last-ditch effort" when there is no one to staff the emergency room.

"It really bothers me deep within," he said. "We just don't have much choice."

According to Central Health press releases, emergency services in Buchans, Baie Verte, Harbour Breton, New-Wes-Valley, Fogo Island and Springdale were closed, collectively, for about 60 days in July 2022 alone.

Dr. Desmond Whalen, acting director of medical services for Central Health, said the regional health authority is working to improve staffing levels across the board.

"We know we've got major issues with access to primary care — and emergency care, for that matter — that sort of spans countrywide," he said.

Recruitment and retention

Whalen pointed to virtual emergency rooms as one way the health authority is attempting to alleviate the pressure on both patients and physicians — though he acknowledged virtual care is not a substitute for in-person health care.

"Our efforts really need to come back to recruitment and retention, and that's sort of where we focus our efforts in terms of making sure that we can get physicians in these communities," he said.

Garrett Barry/CBC
Garrett Barry/CBC

Whalen said Central Health is working with an external recruitment agency. has hired four permanent physicians and has brought in 16 locum, or temporary, physicians, to cover both primary and emergency medicine.

He said Central Health is also working with a community advisory committee and is seeking feedback from locum physicians

One of those new physicians is in Springdale, and Young said he's optimistic the situation will continue to improve.

"Things are a little better than they were, but we just need to certainly get things more stable," he said. "At the end of the day, we don't want to be doing any diversion."

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