As Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital announced Thursday its emergency department would be closed overnight for the next eight days, MLA Peter Milobar said changes have to be made, citing further solutions offered to the provincial government from the BC Liberal party.
“There’s a lot of worry,” he told the Times. “What we’re suggesting is not just based on talking with constituents, but also with health professionals in terms of where they see gaps in a system that can be addressed quickly to help the situation.”
The problems facing the health care system are vast, and will take time to improve and repair, such as a lack of housing throughout the province, increasing the number of training spaces available for medical students and opening new medical training facilities.
But some, said Milobar, can be handled much faster, affecting the retention side of the issue.
“You can deal with some thing around retention, in IHA’s case, they seem to finally reluctantly be acknowledging that their HR environment has not lent itself to retaining staff and that’s created a huge problem,” he said. “The numbers aren’t lying — we’re losing health care workers at an astonishing rate right now.”
Medical training in B.C. sends graduates to various regions to get them exposed to different areas and communities to expose them to different health centres. But a big component of that is housing availability, something many small towns and more remote areas are struggling with. That’s where BC Housing needs to step up, said Milobar, to find ways to provide temporary and long-term housing in areas of need.
“How do we leverage BC Housing in rural areas to help with people in those medical fields that are desperately needed to be able to work within that community to keep the whole community functional?” he said.
What’s causing closures in Clearwater
Carl Meadows, executive director of clinical operations for IHA, said the recent bout of closures is due to a 50-per cent vacancy of nursing positions coupled with the health authority making changes to their nursing rotations to make them “more appealing.”
They’ve received feedback from nurses that an overnight 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. on- call shift to support the emergency department nurses, was not well liked. In response, IHA pitched the on call portion.
“The closures are related to us just trying to get over the hump and move the nurses into new positions,” said Meadows.
The health authority has been working with local governments, including the District of Clearwater, to communicate what is happening and what municipalities can expect. Meadows said he has spoken with mayor Merlin Blackwell quite extensively about the ongoing issues with staffing at Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital.
In terms of housing, he said, the pipeline has made it tough to find places for health care staff, but a local non-profit has come forward with a potential suite.
But when they decide to close the ED, it is not made lightly.
“Closing a site is the worst thing you want to do – worst thing,” said Meadows.
He added a reason why the the closure announcements are made so close to the actual closing time is because they are giving staff a chance to respond to the request to cover a shift. If residents were notified at 2 p.m. that the ED would be closed overnight, but a few hours later a nurse responded saying they were able to work, it would cause confusion to then announce that the ED was actually open.
Closing the department is a last resort.
IH also has to work with the Ministry of Health and notify numerous people before a closure can be made.
That being said, Meadows said IH has seen the frustration caused by the late notice, and they are working on a solution, including posting directly on social media info boards for the community.
“Here’s the good news: we’ve seen some real positive movement,” said Meadows. “It’s kind of like how the quote says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ it takes a community to have a successful health service…it’s about making sure you understand from your staff what they need, what are issues that we can improve.”
In July, the BC Liberal caucus called on the premier and the NDP to implement a 30-day plan to tackle the ongoing issues in primary care.
Four weeks later, in a press release sent Thursday, Aug. 11, the BC Liberals provide further suggestions to help tackle the health-care professional shortage, such as removing barriers for internationally-trained doctors and nurses, as well as fast-tracking the certification of international medical graduates.
“We need real tangible action laid out by the government, what steps they’re going to take, what they can be held accountable for, how are we going to measure whether what they’re doing is successful?” said Milobar.