Crisis in the ER: Doctor shortage means extended closure at GMH

·4 min read

GUYSBOROUGH – Two days before Christmas (Dec. 23), residents of Guysborough Memorial Hospital’s (GMH) catchment area received an unwelcome message – the hospital’s ER would be closed starting that morning until the morning of Dec. 26. That afternoon, a second public service advisory delivered a tougher blow: the emergency department would now be closed until Jan. 10 – a full 18 days without service.

As officials worked to find fill-in options, an update issued on Dec. 24 said the ED would be open that day until Dec. 27 at 6 a.m., but then closed again until Jan. 10 “due to the unavailability of physicians.”

During a worsening pandemic that includes cases at the regional healthcare centre, St. Martha’s Hospital in Antigonish – where facility restrictions recently increased – and winter driving conditions, closure of the emergency department in Guysborough couldn’t have come at a worse time. While residents and the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG) were swift in their condemnation of the closure through social media posts, MODG was also involved in a behind-the-scenes scramble to arrange coverage.

Warden Vernon Pitts told the Journal Dec. 28 that from the time the notice of the extended emergency department closure was given, he and MODG’s CAO Barry Carroll were in contact with the Province, Nova Scotia Health, the Minister of Health and local MLA Greg Morrow.

“All hands were on deck; municipal forces, recruiting forces, Department of Health and our member of the legislature – they were all doing what they could,” said Pitts, adding, “but we got through this. They got coverage. And I commend them for doing it especially at this time of year; everyone would be off on vacation… Everyone went above and beyond, and I think we should recognize that being as it was that certain time of year.”

CAO Carroll told The Journal on Dec. 28, “We’ve been working with the Department of Health basically every day during the Christmas break here, and we had coverage pretty well up until yesterday. They’re working on a plan to get through this coming weekend. They’ll know more later today if they have somebody. It is still up in the air. And then the plan is to work on post January 1.

“I have to say they got on it right away,” said Carroll. “They got something in place basically right away to get us through the Christmas weekend and they did find in-house coverage to take care of the nursing home and the in-patients for this week.

“It was a bit of shock at the end of the day on the 23rd. It was panic actually, especially where it was basically 18 days [emergency room closure]. That’s very tough especially given the situation with COVID and everything.”

In an odd piece of timing, the Annual Accountability Report on Emergency Departments was also released on Dec. 23.

The report, which covers April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021, states that the emergency department at GMH experienced more temporary closures – 915 hours – during this period as compared to the previous report period from April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020, with 266 hours.

Due to grave concerns raised by the public and local officials, Nova Scotia Health has put a priority on finding coverage for the GMH emergency department over the next two weeks.

Minister of Health and Wellness Michelle Thompson sent the following email statement about the situation at GMH to The Journal on Friday afternoon (Dec. 24), “Guysborough Memorial Hospital is experiencing an unexpected physician shortage. We have been able to secure emergency department coverage until Monday, Dec. 27 and will continue to update the public if further coverage is secured.

“We understand a temporary emergency department closure is unsettling. We are working closely with local primary care providers and Emergency Health Services. If anyone experiences an emergency, they should not hesitate to call 911,” Thompson wrote.

She concluded her remarks by stating, “Recruitment continues to be a major priority for government. The new Office of Health Care Professionals Recruitment is working diligently to find solutions to ensure that Nova Scotians have access to the care that they need when they need it.”

The Annual Accountability Report on Emergency Departments can be found online at: https://novascotia.ca/dhw/publications.asp

Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal

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