Staff shortages lead to temporary emergency department closures at 3 rural B.C. hospitals

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The emergency department at Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital in Clearwater, B.C., was closed Sunday, the fifth such closure this month. (Interior Health - image credit)
The emergency department at Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital in Clearwater, B.C., was closed Sunday, the fifth such closure this month. (Interior Health - image credit)

At least three hospitals serving smaller B.C. communities shuttered their emergency departments this weekend due to staffing shortages.

Interior Health announced the closure of the emergency department at Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital in Clearwater from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Anyone requiring emergency care was directed to Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops, about 125 kilometres away from the town of 2,300 in the North Thompson region.

The hospital's ER has been closed four other times this month. District of Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell says such closures have become a "fairly regular occurrence."

"Despite many assurances from Interior Health management that they would solve this, it just seems to keep on happening," he said Sunday.

With summer travel season about to kick off and thousands of workers on the Trans Mountain project in the area, it's a matter of time before there is an emergency, Blackwell says.

"Sooner or later, something's going to come up that's going to require an operating emergency room and it's not going to be open at that time ... We have dodged so many bullets on this one up to now," he said.

Elsewhere in the province, Northern Health said an unanticipated staff shortage led to the closure of the emergency department at Chetwynd Hospital in northeastern B.C. from Saturday evening to Sunday morning.

Island Health closed the ER at the Port McNeill Hospital from Friday night to Saturday morning due to a shortage of nurses.

In a statement, Island Health said there is a shortage of health-care providers nationwide, a problem that is amplified in rural areas.

All three health authorities say they are actively recruiting staff.

Smaller communities, including Merritt, Ashcroft, Barriere and Elkford, have all had medical facilities temporarily closed in recent months.

Blackwell says the temporary closures in Clearwater could put additional strain on the hospital in Kamloops, which has dealt with staff shortages as many nurses have reportedly left because of stress and burnout.

At a press conference on Thursday, Todd Stone, Liberal MLA for Kamloops–South Thompson said he has lost confidence in Interior Health to meet the needs of Kamloops and the surrounding region.

"The situation at Royal Inland Hospital has been worsening over the last four to five years and it will continue to get worse if action isn't taken to make it better."

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