Sackville Memorial Hospital has added five new registered nurses to the emergency department, is slated for ER repairs to fix flood damage from Hurricane Fiona last September, and will soon get a second operating room.
"In collaboration with the community, targeted recruitment efforts in Sackville have yielded positive results," the Horizon Health Network said in a news release Monday.
So much so, Horizon has started to discuss restoring 24/7 emergency services at the hospital, and this collaborative model is now being used as a template in other rural communities facing challenges with recruitment and retention of health-care professionals, such as Sussex.
"We know that our health-care system and our local communities are at their best when we all take ownership of these challenges and work hand-in-hand to address them openly, transparently and collaboratively," Margaret Melanson, Horizon's interim president and CEO, said in a statement.
Sackville Memorial Hospital hasn't been able to offer 24/7 ER services since June of 2021, because of staff shortages. It's open only eight hours a day, from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., and regularly has to further reduce hours or temporarily close, due to a lack of physicians or nurses, including a three-day closure over the holidays.
But Horizon has been working with the Sackville-Memramcook-Tantramar Rural Health Action Group to identify and execute strategies aimed at better promoting the hospital — and the community — "as a quality place to build a career in health care while enjoying all the area has to offer."
More work to do
In addition to the five newly recruited registered ER nurses, five nurse practitioners are now working in the ER, and nursing support has been added to other areas of the hospital, including an inpatient unit.
Overall, 19 of 24 registered nurse positions are currently filled.
"While there is more to be done before 24/7 [ER] coverage in Sackville can be restored … Horizon remains fully committed to this objective," the regional health authority said in the news release.
About four ER physicians and two more registered nurses must be recruited before 24/7 services can safely resume, it said.
Had a morale problem
"I think there's a lot to celebrate, but some of it is not as apparent as the nursing numbers are," said John Higham, co-chair of the action group and the former mayor of Sackville.
The hospital had a "real problem with morale," which Horizon had to deal with before it could make it a place people would want to work, he said.
"You know, how are you scheduled for certain items, and what do you do when you don't have enough physicians or nurses in order to take those people, and how do people react to ongoing changes in their daily lives and they get moved all over the place because of priorities?"
Higham credits Horizon for hiring back a retired manager of nursing at the hospital, who has been "terrific" at identifying those issues and coming up with solutions, which have been implemented.
It's a "tough market" to try to recruit new physicians, he said, but his group will continue to promote the "beauties" of the area.
Higham believes Horizon's investments in the hospital will help.
Horizon will soon renovate a section of the ER, which sustained "pretty extensive damage," according to Higham, after an old water pipe got overloaded during Hurricane Fiona and "literally opened up inside the emergency room."
In addition, as announced in October, Horizon will spend about $2 million to build a second operating room and renovate the existing one, to provide additional access to orthopedic surgeries, such as hip and knee replacements and, potentially, a wider variety of surgical procedures moving forward. Construction is expected to begin by late spring.
This plan will include provisions for short-stay surgeries, where patients could remain in an inpatient unit overnight for certain procedures, according to the Monday's release.
"I think people see [such capital investments] as a really big step that yes, they really mean what they've said, that small hospitals — not just ours —but small hospitals can play an integral part in the total health system in the province. And they can help everybody if they're back in and they're appropriately funded, prepared and staffed," said Higham.
Shift in perspective
He is encouraged by what he describes as a "shift in the perspective of health management in the province."
For several years, rural communities like Sackville were told their hospitals "weren't worthwhile" to keep running, he said.
"I think what we hear is a different perspective from those who are making those decisions now saying, 'We were wrong … We can actually save money by getting them back up, lessening lines, improving community engagement,' and that goes over really well with the community."
Health care unifying topic
Tantramar Mayor Andrew Black agrees. Capital investments show that the hospital is "important," and "a valued piece of health services in the province," he said.
Black, who recently went through an election campaign, when the Town of Sackville, Village of Dorchester and local services districts of Sackville, Dorchester and Pointe de Bute were amalgamated to create the new Town of Tantramar, said restoring 24/7 emergency services and health care in general were "pretty much the number one topic that people talked about."
Although there are often divisive topics, health care is not one of them, said the former deputy mayor of Sackville.
"Every person who lives in this community understands the role that health care plays within the overall well-being of their community and they support it 100 per cent."
Before the pandemic, the community rallied to keep the hospital open and maintain services, said Black.
"It's been a hill to climb ever since then to try to get the government, I guess, and Horizon to get the hospital back to where we want it to be," he said.
Black is "very pleased" with the recent progress and proud of the "significant role" the action group has played.
Horizon did not respond to a request for an interview.