SHEET HARBOUR – In a worsening trend, the ‘24/7’ emergency department of the Eastern Shore Memorial Hospital (ESMH) in Sheet Harbour is now expected to be closed nearly as many days as it’s open to the end of June, say the two officials in charge of that public service.
According to a recent announcement from Nova Scotia Health (NSH), the unit is set to be shuttered 10 days over the next 22. Public records show that it was also closed on June 4 and 5; 12 days in May, and 11 in April.
In response to questions from The Journal last week, Roberta Duchesne – director of community and rural sites for ESMH, Twin Oaks Memorial Hospital and Musquodoboit Valley Memorial Hospital) – and Dr. Lisa Bonang, medical lead at those facilities, acknowledged in a statement issued through NSH that EMHC’s emergency department was open only “31 per cent of the time in the fiscal year 2021-22” and that it “continues to be challenged in providing 24/7 services.”
Recognizing that “uncertainty around access to local emergency care is a concern for the people of Sheet Harbour and surrounding areas,” they said, “Our physicians, along with local and zone leaders, are working to provide a predictable level of service and improve access to care in the short and longer terms.”
Specifically, the hospital is maintaining “the same complement of nurses on site [to] provide care … a person who arrives with a potential emergency can be triaged and a paramedic called to transport a person to another site for care.”
At the same time, they said: “We are working to ensure that people have same-day or next-day access to primary care providers for concerns that might otherwise prompt them to visit an emergency department,” noting, for example that “a nurse practitioner who began work at ESMH last year has taken on a large group of patients and also has time protected for same-day and next-day appointments.”
The hospital has also begun publishing a coverage schedule on its website and through social media that lets people know the unit’s status ahead of time. Changes to this are announced through public service announcements.
Between April 1 and May 31, ESMH’s emergency department was open 24 hours on April 2, 3 and 30, and on May 11 and 12. The rest of the time – apart from closures – it was open in eight-hour shifts, either morning or overnight. This month, it’s scheduled to be available 24 hours on June 11 and 12, and again, morning or overnight, on 15 other days.
Last October, NSH Services Manager Amy Donnelly told The Journal that the hospital’s acute care facilities were “closed 47 per cent of the time last year. [In 2019-20], the closure rate was 23 per cent,” indicating that the institution’s “struggle” with physician recruitment was part of worsening trend at ESMH.
“Obviously, two doctors can’t cover it, 24/7,” she said. “We struggle with nursing staff, too, but it just so happens that we’ve been able to piece together enough [of them]. It’s the doctors where the big gap is.”
In March, the provincial government announced that Eastern Shore hospitals (ESMH, Twin Oaks, and Musquodoboit Valley) will be eligible under The Come Home to Nova Scotia campaign designed to lure qualified physicians to rural, sparsely populated communities. According to the announcement, “Doctors can earn… $25,000 when they sign the agreement and $20,000 per year for the next five years. Payments will be made at the end of each year after key targets are met.”
In their statement last week to The Journal, Duchesne and Bonang said, “Physician recruitment is ongoing and we will open the emergency department as often as we are able to secure coverage. As we plan for the future of emergency services at Eastern Shore Memorial Hospital, we are consulting with community and local elected representatives.”
According to Sheet Harbour Chamber of Commerce & Civic Affairs President Janice Christie, “Members of our communities from the Eastern Shore are participating with Nova Scotia Health for the short-term and long-term solutions to address the emergency department issues at Eastern Shore Memorial Hospital. We wait for more information and potential solutions from Nova Scotia Health.”
Up-to-date information about emergency department closures at ESMH may be obtained at: nshealth.ca/temporaryclosures.
Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal