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Interior Health talks Cariboo Memorial ER closures

Interior Health is working to keep the doors open at the Cariboo Memorial Hospital (CMH) emergency department through the summer months. Last week was the third emergency room closure at CMH since February of this year.
The emergency department at Cariboo Memorial Hospital in Williams Lake serves a large area of the Cariboo-Chilcotin region.

Interior Health is working to keep the doors open at the Cariboo Memorial Hospital (CMH) emergency department through the summer months.

Last week was the third emergency room closure at CMH since February of this year. 

Interior Health posted a notice that emergency services would be unavailable in Williams Lake effective 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 5 until 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 6, 2024 and cited nursing staff shortages as the reason for the closure.

Karen Cooper, executive director, clinical operations for Cariboo/South Cariboo for Interior Health, said they are working to not have this become a pattern at CMH and the goal is to be able to buffer unexpected absences when staff call in sick or can't make a shift . Cooper said they are working to have sufficient staffing as staff begin taking summer vacations.

"I don't want the public bracing themselves, I want them to be reassured," she said, noting they are trending in the right direction as they bring on more staff. However, she also wanted to emphasize people should still follow the process.

"It is always the right thing to do to call 9-1-1," she said, noting the public can always access critical emergency care, even if it is further away. 

"It's going to be a little week by week," she said about possible future staffing and closures, but five new graduate nurses have been hired for CMH and more are continuing to be hired.

She said at this point, the new additions are outpacing the attrition of nurses leaving as some retire, move or leave the profession.

Cooper said closures typically happen because they have unfilled shifts going in and then an absence takes the department to a level where they are unable to provide enough staff to safely stay open.

"When we have the unexpected happen and we don't have that buffer, that's when we get into the kind of situations we've been having," she said.

"I just can't say enough about the team that's at Cariboo Memorial Hospital, and the dedication. We've seen people work extra time on their shifts and come in multiple days in a row."

She said the medium and long term strategy is to bring in more nurses with the hope of ending these closures while also supporting the emergency department with other staff to help relieve the pressure on nurses and physicians. Over a recent weekend, they brought in a respiratory therapist and a social worker to address some patients' needs. 

Cooper expressed gratitude to both BC Emergency Health Services and 100 Mile District General Hospital in 100 Mile House and GR Baker Memorial Hospital in Quesnel, for their support in diverting and treating the patients who would otherwise be accessing care at the Cariboo Memorial Hospital.

Scott Duvall, regional rep with the BC Nurses Union, said the problem is happening across the province with shortages in all health care areas and especially in rural areas. He said in order to attract more nurses, the employer needs to ensure the workplace is safe and retention of staff has to take precedence before recruitment. The union is pushing for better nurse-to-patient ratios across the province and Duvall said he doesn't believe the closures would take place on a whim and it is not an problem which the health authority will be able to solve quickly.

Duvall said B.C. has some of the best wages in the country and in order to attract even more nurses, they are looking at things like flexible schedule options and opportunities for education and training.

Anyone unsure whether an emergency room visit is warranted can call HealthLink BC at 8-1-1, or visit for non-emergency health information from nurses, dietitians and pharmacists 24 hours a day, seven days per week.

The emergency department in Cariboo Memorial Hospital is normally open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Merritt, Oliver, and many smaller communities have also been facing ER closures at their hospitals.

Ruth Lloyd

About the Author: Ruth Lloyd

I moved back to my hometown of Williams Lake after living away and joined the amazing team at the Williams Lake Tribune in 2021.
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