Access to epidural pain control 'limited' at Summerside hospital through Sept. 2

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Dr. Tyler McDonell, the medical director of Prince County Hospital, says the shortage of staff to provide epidural catheters won't affect patients who need emergency caesarean sections. (CBC - image credit)
Dr. Tyler McDonell, the medical director of Prince County Hospital, says the shortage of staff to provide epidural catheters won't affect patients who need emergency caesarean sections. (CBC - image credit)

Patients hoping for access to epidural pain medication during childbirth are being warned that Prince County Hospital in Summerside may not be able to oblige for the next two weeks.

Health P.E.I. said there will be "limited anesthesia coverage" at the Summerside hospital through Sept. 2.

"During that time, epidurals may not be available between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., Monday to Friday," the agency said in a statement, adding: "This reduction is not related to the ongoing nation-wide epidural supply issue."

Dr. Tyler McDonell is the hospital's medical director. He said the issue will mean no difference for patients needing emergency caesarean sections, but would affect "labouring mothers on the floors" if the hospital's sole anesthesiologist on duty during the daytime is needed in the operating room.

"What's happening with our staffing is I suppose what's happening with staffing across the country. Which is, it's hard to find them and we're short," said McDonell.

"We're short in anesthesia, we're short in other areas as well — nursing, physicians alike — and that's the crux of why we really have to make some really tough decisions like these."

Mostly for C-sections

Epidurals are a class of painkiller best known for their use during childbirth, but they are administered for other types of surgery as well. "The lion's share of them would be for caesarean sections," said McDonell.

An anesthesiologist uses a catheter to introduce the drug into the space around the dura mater of the spinal cord. The procedure leaves patients with no sensation below their waists.

Bradley Gordon
Bradley Gordon

If nobody is available to hook up the catheter for an epidural, McDonell says patients in labour would be offered inhaled or water-based therapies, or other kinds of pain medications instead.

"Those usual alternate ways in which we try to manage labour pains will still be there. It's still the same amazing nurses doing the same work Our obstetricians are still all here and engaged. It's just the availability of that anesthetic procedure."

He said the situation should ease soon because the hospital has recruited another anesthesiologist who will start work "within a month."

There are about 600 births at Prince County Hospital each year, McDonell estimated.