Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital closes birthing unit as staff shortage worsens

·2 min read
The Perth, Ont., site of the Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital, pictured here in July, has temporarily closed its labour and delivery services due to staffing shortages. (Camille Kasisi-Monet/Radio-Canada - image credit)
The Perth, Ont., site of the Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital, pictured here in July, has temporarily closed its labour and delivery services due to staffing shortages. (Camille Kasisi-Monet/Radio-Canada - image credit)

A multi-week closure of labour and delivery services at the Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital is raising concerns that health-care staffing shortages are spreading to new areas of hospital operations.

The hospital said in an internal memo circulated to staff on Thursday that it will temporarily close the unit from Sept. 22 to 7 a.m. on Oct. 10 due to staffing shortages.

The hospital normally operates four birthing rooms at its Smith Falls campus. The nearest alternative is now the Almonte General Hospital, located more than 45 kilometres away.

"The staffing shortage is beginning to assert itself around other services which are fundamentally very important," said Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

To date, hospital closures in the region have been mostly confined to emergency rooms and intensive care units. For that reason, Hurley said, "what's happening in Perth really bears watching."

Kate Bueckert/CBC
Kate Bueckert/CBC

The closure follows a wave of similar cutbacks and shutdowns in hospitals across eastern Ontario, including an emergency room closure of more than three weeks at the Perth hospital in July and another of 24 hours at the Carleton Place & District Memorial Hospital in early August.

Hurley said the latest closure "reflects a severe staffing shortage" made worse by the relative lack of access to health-care alternatives in rural settings.

Perth a 'microcosm of the bigger problem,' physician says

The memo notifying staff about the closure, obtained by CBC News, outlined rules for specific limits on how many and what type of patients can be treated in the labour and delivery unit during the closure.

Alan Drummond, an emergency room physician at the Perth hospital, said he believes the closure was likely "well thought-out" with appropriate contingencies for patient care. But, he added, the closure remains symptomatic of the underlying problems of staff turnover and burnout.

"If it was ever an example of a system in crisis — or a health-care system that was crumbling — our hospital would seem to reflect that as a sort of microcosm of the bigger problem," said Drummond.

"Right now we are bleeding nurses like there is no tomorrow ... and it is purely and principally nursing staffing shortages on the basis of disrespectful treatment by the provincial government."

Solutions in progress, ministry says

The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care said in an email statement to CBC that it is addressing staffing problems through a health-care plan released in mid-August that will add up to 6,000 more health-care workers in the province.

Hurley, however, is not convinced that will help much.

He said the additional workers are a positive, but the total makes up such a small fraction of the workforce it represents a "very modest" initiative.

"We're asking the province to focus on measures to retain and attract and recruit staff," Hurley said. "They're going to have to do better than they're doing at the moment."