P.E.I. Health Minister Ernie Hudson says surgeons from Charlottetown will cover off shifts at the Prince County Hospital after the end of June, if necessary, as staffing issues at the Summerside Hospital dominated another question period in the provincial legislature Tuesday.
Health PEI has confirmed two of the three surgeons at the hospital are leaving, with their last day on June 30. One has resigned, and the second is a locum who is not renewing their term. The agency also says one surgeon at the hospital has been on administrative leave since late 2020 — information that has not previously been brought forward during debate in the legislature.
During question period Tuesday, opposition members asked about the current backlog of surgeries at Prince County Hospital. Hudson said he would have to bring that information back to the House.
But speaking to reporters afterwards, Hudson echoed what he said in question period the previous week, saying "until the end of June, surgeries are covered."
Asked if patients at the hospital are able to book elective surgeries beyond June 30, Hudson said "the gaps at Prince County would be covered, but by surgeons from Queen Elizabeth."
Hudson also said there is "substantial interest" in the two positions about to become vacant, with "seven surgeons that have expressed an interest in locating to Prince County."
According to information provided by Health PEI to CBC News, all three surgeons who had previously been working in Summerside reached the end of their careers, retiring in the 2019-20 fiscal year.
They were replaced with two permanent physicians and one long-term locum. The agency said a part-time locum has also been hired to help cover the on-call schedule.
Despite the assurances from the minister that surgeries are not being impacted, the Liberal MLA for O'Leary-Inverness Robert Henderson said his constituents are telling him otherwise.
"It comes from constituents that are going for potential surgeries, getting them transferred to the QEH," in Charlottetown, Henderson told reporters.
"You're getting people that are being prepped and prepared for surgery, and abruptly stopped and rescheduled for another date and time."
Henderson said too often information the minister provided in the House has later been shown to be incorrect.
As an example, Henderson pointed to last Friday, when Hudson again assured the House surgeries wouldn't be impacted, only to have Health PEI confirm afterwards that some on-call shifts in Summerside couldn't be covered, and emergency surgeries would be diverted to Charlottetown.
"That causes, once again, confusion, and it seems to be getting worse," Henderson said.
"I think the public needs to be given factual information on the status and situation of our surgical units here in Prince Edward Island, as well as the delivery of health care."
During question period, opposition MLAs from both parties tried once again to uncover details behind what the minister himself has referred to as "human resource challenges" at the Summerside hospital.
"What I am hearing from front-line health-care professionals and physicians at Prince County Hospital is that government administration and leadership is, in short, toxic, driving doctors away," said Green Party health critic Trish Altass.
She said she's also been told areas of the hospital "may not be maintaining up-to-date best practices," and that the province has been recruiting physicians based on promises to work within their areas of specialization "and that these promises are not being fulfilled, again, resulting in doctors choosing to leave."
"Based on issues identified in the elusive exit surveys, does any of this sound familiar to you?" Altass asked the health minister.
The topic of exit surveys to find out why personnel may be leaving has come up frequently in the legislature. Hudson didn't address the topic Tuesday, but after question period Health PEI indicated exit interviews have not taken place.
The agency said exit interviews will be offered to outgoing staff but are voluntary, and said the contents would be confidential.
Government working on plan
In response to Altass's questions about exit surveys, Hudson referred to a provincial surgical plan his department is developing.
"We have 10 physicians, 10 great expert, great Island physicians who are sitting on that, putting together the plan," Hudson said.
"We have nurses … we have community members working together with our health-care professionals, putting together that plan."
"How did we get to a point two years into this government's mandate where we finally are realizing we need a plan?" Altass responded. "How is that possible?"