Hundreds protest ER closures in Harbour Breton, health minister promises recruitment priority

·3 min read
Hundreds gathered on Friday to protest the ongoing closures of the emergency room in Harbour Breton. (Georgina Ollerhead/Facebook - image credit)
Hundreds gathered on Friday to protest the ongoing closures of the emergency room in Harbour Breton. (Georgina Ollerhead/Facebook - image credit)
Georgina Ollerhead/Facebook
Georgina Ollerhead/Facebook

For more than a year, the emergency room serving the Harbour Breton area has closed off and on — and last week, hundreds of area residents marched on the Connaigre Peninsula Health Centre in protest.

When the emergency room in Harbour Breton closes, anyone who experiences a medical emergency must travel 223 kilometres to the nearest emergency room in Grand Falls-Windsor.

In an interview with The St. John's Morning Show, Georgina Ollerhead, co-organizer of the rally and former mayor of Harbour Breton, said that's what happened when her 80-year-old father experienced a fall last March, while the emergency room was closed due to a lack of staff.

"When you experience something like that it certainly brings to light, you know, how devastating it is not to have doctors in your community," she said on Monday.

Ollerhead said her father — who has since recovered — travelled two hours and 24 minutes by ambulance to the hospital in Grand Falls-Windsor, with the ambulance at one point needing to stop to check his vital signs.

"It was terrifying. It was absolutely terrifying," she said.

According to news releases from Central Health, the emergency room, which serves several communities in the region, has closed at least a dozen times this year, sometimes for days at a time. Ollerhead said by her count, the emergency room has closed for more than 60 days.

The emergency room is next scheduled to close for 24 hours beginning Wednesday. After opening on Thursday, it will close again on Friday.

"It's getting worse," Ollerhead said. She said the support at last week's rally was "phenomenal." Ollerhead said she's worried about how health-care shortages will impact her town.

"We've got a beautiful community of Harbour Breton, beautiful in the Coast of Bays, lots to offer, and is it going to deter people from coming? Is it going to deter industry from coming? It's scary."

Recruitment is 'top priority': Osborne

On Monday, Health Minister Tom Osborne said staffing the Connaigre Peninsula Health Centre is a "very top" priority.

"There are three very solid potential physicians for that area," he said. "The health authority are working with those physicians and, you know, certainly my hope that we will see all three of those physicians to the area."

He said because of the community's distance to the nearest emergency room, the health authority is committed to staffing an emergency room, rather than implementing an urgent care centre like in Whitbourne.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

According to Osborne, Harbour Breton is one of four areas with an additional $200,000 signing bonus for physicians, which can be stacked with other financial incentives.

"That is the most attractive incentive in all of Canada that we're offering for Harbour Breton," he said.

Osborne said he has a meeting planned in the area for the first week of June.

"It's certainly my hope that by the time that meeting happens, we'll have some of the human resources issues resolved for Harbour Breton area," he said

Urgent care possible for St. Lawrence

Communities across the province are struggling with similar shortages. The emergency room at the U.S. Memorial Health Centre in St. Lawrence has been closed for months.

St. Lawrence Mayor Kevin Pittman said an urgent care centre is on the table in that community, and Osborne presented the option to about 250 residents in a town hall meeting.

LISTEN: Community leaders talk about the impact of rural emergency room closures 

Pittman said after months without an emergency room, the response from residents was positive.

"The reality of being able to get enough doctors in our U.S. Memorial, as well as enough nurses to staff our long-term care facility, as well as an emergency-care facility just doesn't seem like it's practical in the province at this time," he said.

Osborne said a family care clinic is coming to that area, too, though he didn't give a timeline.

"Again, it's a matter of recruitment," he said.

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