South Bruce Grey Health Centre CEO warns of ‘significant chance’ of ER closures this summer due to doctor shortage

·3 min read

GREY-BRUCE – Michael Barrett, CEO of South Bruce Grey Health Centre, warns of a challenging summer ahead, in terms of keeping hospital emergency rooms open.

Every small hospital in the area is at risk from the worsening doctor shortage, he said. Personnel from hospitals in the old Southwest Local Health Integration Network – Grey-Bruce, Huron-Perth, London-Middlesex, Elgin and Oxford – have been meeting twice weekly over the issue.

He explained in an interview that while larger sites may have two, three or four doctors on duty in an emergency department, and large teaching hospitals have even more, small, rural hospitals have one. If that one doctor can’t show up, perhaps because of a medical problem of their own, “the emergency room can’t stay open.”

Barrett noted the situation is made more challenging by the fact that the doctor in the emergency room often wears several hats, running a family practice, covering the local long-term care home, perhaps assisting in surgery.

“If the doctor has worked all night, they can’t open the clinic the next day; they need to sleep,” said Barrett. “Doctors in small, rural hospitals are in four or five different settings.”

He gave as an example Dr. Paul McArthur, whose duties include family practice, inpatients, emergency, obstetrics and anesthesia.

The CEO noted that the number of local physicians doing emergency room coverage is shrinking.

“We are very fortunate to have a dedicated group of local physicians doing coverage,” he said, adding that locums are still important. The Kincardine site in particular relies heavily on them.

And that raises another potential problem. He told the hospital board at the June 1 meeting that there is a financial incentive paid to locums who sign for a shift on short notice. This means that “we sometimes aren’t sure until the 11th hour if a shift will be covered.”

With nurses, it’s different.

“We know what the staffing levels are,” he said. “Not with physicians.”

It’s not a local problem, but one experienced by hospitals throughout the area and province.

“Resources are going to be spread pretty thin this summer,” said Barrett.

He told the hospital board, “We’re very concerned and the province is very concerned there won’t be enough physicians” to keep hospital ERs open this summer. He noted the ED Locum Program (EDLP) will be “stretched to provide physician coverage.” The new temporary Summer Locum Program is expanding.

The group of hospitals that has been meeting will soon be issuing a joint press release, warning of “a significant chance of reductions in (ER) services,” said Barrett. “It’s going to be a challenging summer.”

Barrett reiterated, “Our local physicians are going above and beyond.”

Dr. Lisa Roth, chief of medical staff, commented on the need for communication to come from hospitals, stressing that rural medicine means “you wear a lot of hats.”

She suggested a series of communications, explaining “what your family physician is doing.”

Roth added, “We’re really trying to keep things open … and keep us out of the 6 p.m. news.”

Resumption of full ER service at Chesley a go

After no overnight service at the Chesley emergency room for the past two years due to the shortage of nurses, SBGHC is gearing up to resume full 24-hour service on June 15.

The emergency room in Walkerton reopened to full 24-hour service May 8 after a five-month overnight closure.

Barrett stressed in his report to the board that there continues to be two primary stipulations for reopening.

“We cannot provide care that is unsafe, or that further deteriorates staff,” he said.

After careful monitoring of the staffing situation after the Walkerton reopening, and detailed calculations of a number of factors including summer vacations, Barrett said, “I do believe we are in a position to reopen” the Chesley ER. He noted the staffing situation with physicians and nurses will continue to be closely monitored.

Barrett had warned with the Walkerton reopening that there continues to be a risk of short-term, temporary service cuts.

Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times

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