Urgent-care clinic to open in Whitbourne as 24/7 ER remains closed

Health Minister Tom Osborne wouldn't say if the Whitbourne emergency department is closed for good. (Curtis Hicks/CBC - image credit)
Health Minister Tom Osborne wouldn't say if the Whitbourne emergency department is closed for good. (Curtis Hicks/CBC - image credit)
Curtis Hicks/CBC
Curtis Hicks/CBC

Whitbourne's 24-hour emergency room has been closed for more than eight months, but starting Monday, residents with non-life-threatening health concerns will be able to access same-day care three days a week.

On Tuesday, Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister Tom Osborne announced Eastern Health will open the province's first urgent-care clinic at the Dr. W.H. Newhook Community Health Centre in Whitbourne, where the emergency room has been shut down since June 27.

"This is providing services to the community that they don't currently have," said Osborne.

In February, about 200 protesters gathered to voice their frustration over the continued closure of the emergency room, which means in the event of a medical emergency, 20,000 area residents no other option but to travel about 50 kilometres to Placentia, 60 kilometres to Carbonear or 90 kilometres to St. John's.

Osborne said between 80 and 90 per cent of people who went to the Whitbourne emergency department before the diversions began had non-life-threatening health concerns that could be addressed through urgent care.

"We anticipate that the number of cases that can be seen in the urgent care setting will certainly be over 80 per cent, for sure," he said.

He wouldn't say whether the Whitbourne emergency room is closed for good.

"That's not a decision we're making today," he said.

Goal is to offer urgent care every day: Osborne

Osborne said both scheduled and walk-in appointments will be available at the clinic. A physician, nurse practitioner and registered nurse — who are already working at the health centre — will staff the clinic. He said primary care, outpatient care and laboratory and medical imaging will continue to operate five days a week in Whitbourne.

Department officials said anyone having a medical emergency should still call 911, but residents can call provincial health line 811 if they are unsure whether they should go to the emergency room or the urgent-care clinic.

According to Eastern Health, the clinic will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Osborne said the goal is to eventually expand the clinic in stages to five days a week, seven days a week and into evening hours within a year — but the expansion plans hinge on recruitment efforts.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

The clinic will be staffed with employees already on site while Eastern Health works to recruit more staff.

Osborne said the urgent-care model might work in other areas of the province where emergency rooms have closed due to lack of staff, but the provincial government isn't looking at any specific communities.

"Our Category B sites such as Bonavista, Harbour Breton, based on the distance they are from an acute-care centre, will certainly remain emergency departments. They have to because of the distance," he said.

'Plugging holes'

Whitbourne Mayor Hilda Whelan called Tuesday's announcement "despicable."

"Basically they've told us today we won't get back 24-hour care," she said.

She agreed that the addition of urgent care will be an improvement but said it doesn't compare with the emergency department.

"Maybe it does take care of 80 per cent. But what about the other 20 per cent?"

NDP health critic Lela Evans said the replacement of the emergency department with an urgent care clinic is an "erosion of services."

"It's like they're plugging holes — randomly plugging holes," she said. "When you look at Whitbourne, they're still an hour away from emergency health care, right? Critical, life-saving emergency health care."

Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

Paul Dinn, Progressive Conservative health critic, called the clinic a "knee-jerk response" to public outcry.

"The fact that they're saying that they don't have staff readily available and they're still looking at recruitment — that doesn't give me any indication that there's a plan in place."

Ron Johnson, Eastern Health vice-president, said the health authority is recruiting another physician, nurse practitioner and registered nurse for the clinic, and one of the job postings is already showing "good interest."

"Looking at our previous experience at these types of models, we know that we're going to be able to recruit," he said.

Johnson said the clinic will have 25 appointments a day to start and the cost of the urgent-care centre will be "marginal."

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