Seven doctors at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton stepped in to cover a nursing shortage in the emergency department over the weekend, an organizer of the effort says.
Cardiologist Dr. Luc Cormier called an emergency meeting of his colleagues after the Vitalité Health Network announced all ambulances would be directed to the Moncton Hospital because of a lack of staff at the Dumont emergency department.
The doctors decided to take turns working in the department to try to get full services running again.
Hospital employees have to help one another, Cormier told Information Morning Moncton on Wednesday.
"We can and should step up when there is a very difficult situation somewhere," said Cormier, who is also president of the council of doctors and dentists at the Dumont hospital.
Cormier said the hospital has been grappling with a nursing shortage in the ER for at least two years.
"Some people describe it almost as a war zone," he said. "We have patients everywhere."
Right now, the hospital would need to hire 15 nurses for the emergency department to get the ER running at 100 per cent, he said.
When asked why the nursing shortage was especially dire this past weekend, Cormier said he didn't know.
'We are not nurses'
Under the direction of nurses throughout last weekend, doctors collaborated with nursing staff to initiate and monitor treatments, provide assessments and take patient care notes.
"We are not nurses," Cormier said. "We don't have their skill set, but we certainly have a certain number of skills and competencies."
He said the emergency room was calm when the doctors started Saturday because they were only handling walk-ins. But as the weekend went on, the department became a lot busier.
'A sense of relief'
While some staff were surprised by the gesture of doctors volunteering to work as nurses, Cormier said there was also "a sense of relief" from staff because it's mentally difficult working in the ER with a nursing shortage.
"We wanted to of course stabilize our situation and get things rolling as fast as possible," he said. "Fortunately, that did happen."
No patients had to be transferred to Moncton Hospital and by Sunday evening, regular ambulance service had returned to the Dumont.
Cormier said he is hopeful such a nursing shortage won't occur again, but staff are worried about the summer, when more people take time off.
"We are very anxious about the upcoming months," he said.
System 'crumbling,' union says
In 2019, the Horizon and Vitalité health networks reported a need for an additional 520 registered nurses a year for the next five years.
Paula Doucet, the president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union, said she wasn't surprised by the lack of nurses in the hospital's ER.
"People are stepping up because they want to save the health-care system in New Brunswick when it's actually crumbling down around us."
She was to meet with Premier Blaine Higgs and Health Minister Dorothy Shephard this week to talk about the nursing shortage and safer work conditions for nurses.
Nurses in New Brunswick are "beyond the point of exhaustion" and have been asking for some type of relief, she said.
Doucet has suggested amalgamating some services provided by the two health networks. She said the Dumont hospital, run by Vitalité, and the Moncton Hospital, a part of the Horizon network, are struggling with a shortage of staff.
"What services can we deliver together and deliver well, rather than try to run two different services with skeletal crews and running the staff in the ground that are there," she said.
Vitalité's administration operates in French and Horizon's operates in English. Both are required by the Official Languages Act to be able to serve people in French or English.
Fewer French-speaking nurses
In a statement to CBC News, Vitalité said hospitals across the province are feeling the impact of a national nursing shortage, and recruiting efforts continue.
Nationally, there are also more English-speaking nurses than French, and nursing salaries are higher in French- speaking Quebec than in New Brunswick.
"We must be innovative in our solutions and pursue our goals according to the mission and vision of the organization," said Dr. France Desrosiers, president and CEO of Vitalité.
"It is always possible to strive for excellence in care, even in times of pandemic and human resource shortages."