The emergency department at the Sussex Health Centre will be closed overnight — every night — starting next week because of a shortage of emergency room physicians.
Horizon Health Network's interim president and CEO said the move is temporary, but couldn't specify an end date.
"We would certainly hope it would be less than a year. That would be our absolute hope," said Margaret Melanson during a Zoom call with the media on Tuesday afternoon.
"I wish I could give you an end date. No, we do not have an end date in mind at this time," she said.
Starting on Monday, the emergency department will be closed between 8:30 p.m. and 7:30 a.m.
"I don't want to sugarcoat this," said Dr. Brian O'Neill, a family physician in Sussex who was on the Zoom call with Melanson.
"This is a devastating thing for our community."
O'Neill said there are people whose lives have been saved "because they were resuscitated or given treatment that needed to be done quickly in our emergency room."
Not like 2020 decision
Melanson said this is nothing like what the government announced in February 2020. At that time, Sussex was one of six communities slated to lose their emergency rooms in the overnight hours from midnight to 8 a.m., but the government later backed away from that plan.
"I would like to give the Sussex residents my personal commitment that this is not a decision that was made lightly, that we have an absolute intention to restore their 24/7 emergency department services as quickly as possible," she said.
Horizon officials met with local physicians, nurses and staff to identify solutions.
Given the staffing shortages, O'Neill said there really wasn't an alternative to reducing hours.
He said they considered making emergency doctors' shifts longer, but their hours already exceed what's allowed in the contract.
"It's really regrettable that this is happening, but I feel like we're making the best of a bad situation," said O'Neill.
"As family doctors, we're all working harder than we're used to. We can't ask our colleagues in emergency medicine to put in 50 per cent more hours than they're used to or they'll be burned out. So there weren't any sustainable options really, right now, until we get more emergency room doctors in Zone 2 in the Saint John region."
He estimated that Saint John, where most of Sussex's emergency room physicians come from, was already short six or seven physicians.
"They don't have enough manpower to keep their own shifts fully staffed," said O'Neill.
"Something had to give."
ER closures have also hit Moncton, Saint John
In fact, things were so dire in the Saint John area, the emergency department at the Saint John Regional Hospital was limited to life-threatening conditions two weekends ago. The Moncton Hospital experienced a similar shutdown on the same weekend, something Melanson at the time said was unprecedented.
Melanson said the health network continues to face "immense pressures" related to staffing shortages and continues to work on recruitment.
She said Horizon has already managed to hired a new nurse practitioner for the area. No other details were provided, but Melanson promised to share more information about it soon.
She also said Horizon is working with local officials, including municipal representatives, to try to develop a community action group to help with recruitment.
"We believe a collaborative effort and involvement from our partners will help us to address this situation as quickly as possible," said Melanson.
She said names of potential group members are currently being collected.
A 'race to the bottom'
Sussex Mayor Marc Thorne said there are a number of interconnected issues contributing to the shortage of ER doctors in Sussex. One of them is a shortage in the Saint John area.
"We only have one emergency doctor and all of the rest come down from Saint John, and this has been the case for a very long time. So our ER, the ability to operate, is only as strong as the regional hospital and their staffing."
He said the strain on emergency rooms is also connected to a shortage of family doctors.
"We must remember that the vast majority of people that present at ERs are there because they don't have a family doctor. So we have to address the staffing and recruitment for family doctors as well as the ER doctors."
Thorne said there's an incredible strain on existing doctors, which has a "domino effect" on recruitment and retention.
"It's a race to the bottom, and it exhausts our physicians and it impacts your ability to recruit and retain physicians."
After all, said Thorne, who wants to move to an area and work in that kind of environment.