Officials with Health PEI say they're exploring many options to address a shortage of nurses in the emergency department at the Prince County Hospital this summer, but at this point plans to bring paramedics in to fill those gaps are on hold.
This comes after confusion over whether paramedics could begin working vacant nursing shifts at Prince County Hospital throughout the summer.
According to Health PEI, there will be a 40 per cent vacancy rate for nursing positions in the emergency department between June and September and there are currently 160 shifts that need to be filled within that time frame.
Jason Woodbury, president of the union that represents paramedics on P.E.I., said he was notified Monday that discussions were taking place about the option of having paramedics help with those shifts at the PCH.
He said eight jobs were posted internally on Wednesday by Island EMS for temporary paramedic positions in the ER over the summer.
"The work includes critical skills, working at the critical care suite at the Prince County Hospital and also doing triage work," Woodbury said.
He said paramedics would be qualified, that the work is within their scope of practice, and some have already applied for the jobs. But he said his industry is facing staffing shortages of its own and now isn't the time for paramedics to be switching roles.
"We're taking resources from one health care system and putting it into another health care piece of the system that's already fragile, so it just doesn't seem like it's the right timing for this based on all the dynamics of the complete system," Woodbury said.
Plans to use paramedics in ED on hold
On Thursday, Corinne Rowswell, COO of Health PEI, said the agency was looking at the option of including paramedics in the emergency department at the PCH when vacant shifts could not be filled by nurses.
Rowswell said Health PEI's first priority is to fill vacant nursing shifts with nurses and hire more nurses to fill vacant positions.
She said if paramedics were to begin working in the emergency department, it would only be done if there were enough staff available to fulfil their other responsibilities.
"They do have key priorities in other areas within our health care system that they must provide, so emergency transportation, responding to our mobile integrated health program," said Rowswell.
"There's a number of areas that they do have commitments and responsibilities, and so this is very much looking at it as the contingency for when we don't have staff available."
In a statement issued Friday, a spokesperson said Health PEI is committed to keeping the PCH emergency department open and has been working on contingencies to ensure it does, including the use of paramedics to provide service.
The statement said "Temporary positions were posted by Island EMS this week. However, at this time, any plans to use paramedics in the ED are on hold."
Meetings to continue
Barbara Brookins, president of the P.E.I. Nurses Union, said this was welcome news. She said she became aware of discussions about using paramedics in the emergency department earlier this week, which raised concerns among members.
"We were concerned obviously about service delivery and just wondering if all avenues have been explored before this discussion came forward," Brookins said.
She said she met with officials from Health PEI and the Department of Health Thursday, and will now work with the province to look at other options to fill those vacant positions.
"We clarified before we left that there would be kind of a step back here," Brookins said.
"Kind of re-look again at what incentives can be offered before we look to a route outside Health PEI, you know. They're looking at travel nurses, they're looking at more incentives for nurses to get them to pick up [shifts], offering more overtime to replace the vacancies. Those incentives have to be fully explored before you look at bringing in other health care employees."
Officials with Health PEI said they will "Work with unions and all stakeholders in the coming days to assess any possible solutions to the shortage, with a goal of finding ways to have nurses cover these shifts which is the preferred solution."
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