Controversial plan would see services divided between two hospitals in Central Ontario

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Controversial plan would see services divided between 2 hospitals in Central Ontario
A redevelopment plan for Muskoka Algonquin Health is receiving pushback from the community, despite officials saying it’s the only way to sustain healthcare in the region. Earlier this year, the healthcare network unveiled its new plan to build two new hospitals in Bracebridge and Huntsville. The proposed builds would replace the two existing hospitals, which health officials say are in need of updates. The hospital board is proposing to split services between the two hospitals, with each one focusing on different specialties – Feb 9, 2024

A redevelopment plan for Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare is receiving pushback from the community despite officials saying it’s the only way to sustain the current level of healthcare in the region.

Earlier this year, the healthcare organization unveiled its new plan to build two new hospitals in Bracebridge and Huntsville, replacing the two existing hospitals, which health officials say are outdated.

The hospital board is proposing splitting services between the two hospitals, each focusing on different specialties.

In the plan, Huntsville would get the vast majority of inpatient beds and the obstetrics program for delivering babies. At the same time, the Bracebridge site would drop to 14 beds for inpatients and four beds for the intensive care unit and focus on outpatient day procedures.

Both locations in the new plan would have emergency departments and intensive care units, with patients transferred between the two communities depending on their health needs.

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Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare includes Huntsville District Memorial Hospital in Huntsville (top) and South Muskoka Memorial Hospital in Bracebridge (bottom). Via Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare Facebook

The hospital’s CEO says by doing this, they will be able to keep the same level of care in the community and improve services in some cases.

Cheryl Harrison says that the proposal will give them a chance to expand the Huntsville ICU and go up a level of care to a level-three trauma centre, meaning that those who are being sent south to Orillia Barrie and GTA at their sickest will be able to stay in the region.

She says this new plan is needed to respond to ongoing healthcare worker shortages, operational challenges with small-volume programs and services, and a prescribed budget for building the two new hospitals.

“We also recognize that the current model of service is not sustainable and not affordable, which is why we have developed something new. Healthcare in the province is under severe financial strain, and we need to ensure that what we develop will be as efficient and effective as possible,” Harrison says.

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However, the proposed plan has not been taken well by residents and healthcare workers, who see it as a loss to the Bracebridge community and say it will dissuade doctors from moving there.

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A group of local doctors penned an open letter against the new plan, and the Ontario Nurses Association released a statement saying it was a loss of healthcare service and said it stands with the community.

“The kind of medicine that we practice right now, looking after inpatients and delivering babies, is going to change drastically, and it’s going to be a lot less fulfilling if this plan goes through. A big part of why I like my job is that I get to come to the hospital and see my own patients when they’re admitted, and with only 14 beds, that’s not going to be necessary going forward,” says Dr. Shannon Lees.

Dr. Shannon Lees from Bracebridge Ontario. Supplied by Dr. Shannon Lees

Lees is a family physician based in Bracebridge who has privileges to treat her patients at the South Muskoka Memorial Hospital and is one of 38 who signed the letter speaking out.

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The doctors say the Bracebridge site often operates at over 100 per occupancy of inpatients, with our volumes being especially heavy over the past several months.

“As our population ages over the coming years, it is only natural to expect that the demand for hospital services in our community will grow with time,” the letter reads.

Lees says doctors have many concerns including moving all births to the Huntsville location.

“You cannot always predict how your birth is going to turn out. You can’t predict if there’s going to be an emergency. You can’t predict how long labour is going to take. You can’t predict when you’re going to deliver the baby,” Lees says.

But Harrison says the current obstetrics program treats expecting mothers at both locations is not sustainable.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that we are a low volume, low-risk obstetric department and part of ensuring that we have enhanced care and sustainability for staffing is it’s very difficult to take the less than 300 births and divide them across two sites,” Harrison says.

The moving of the obstetrics program moving is also a significant concern for others in the community who spoke to Global News, and the question of transportation between the two locations is also an unknown issue.

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Harrison says they have years to figure out a viable transportation plan to move patients and their loved ones from one community to another and is confident they will. However, advocates say transportation is something that should have already been figured out.

“We have a lot of lakes in Muskoka, and we got a lot of back roads. So what looks like on paper, like a very short distance, goes wide, and when you’re looking at kilometres versus time, there’s quite a difference,” says Phyllis Winnington-Ingram.

Winnington-Ingram is one of the founding members of the Community Advocates for Hospitals and Healthcare for Muskoka and Area.

The group was formed around six years ago to advocate for maintaining and improving the two hospitals in Bracebridge and Huntsville when health officials were initally looking into only one location.

Through research, like looking at the barriers in transporting people from one site to the other, the group successfully advocate for the need to keep two facilities.

Now, with the recent announcement, she and others in the community say it feels like a backtrack, with the majority of services set to be in Huntsville.

“We have this relative balance of services within the two hospitals, and that was our understanding of what would take place. Now, they’re suggesting that virtually all the services are moving to Huntsville, and only we would be an emergency facility, and that’s not what was agreed to,” Winnington-Ingram says.

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She and others have been very outspoken online and at community forums where hospital staff presented the plan to the community for public feedback.

While tension around the issue has been high, the CEO says nothing is set in stone.

“I know it’s different than what people were expecting, but it’s not finished yet, and it won’t be finished until we hear what is working for people and what we need to do. But let’s be clear: there is no more money to build these hospitals. What there is is time to figure out how we can do it right within the envelope with money that we’ve been given,” Harrison says.

Following community pushback hospital administration have organized a second community meeting in Bracebridge to take place on Monday, February 12 to speak to residents about the plan and collected feedback.

The cost for the whole project is estimated to be around $967 million.

The board hopes to finalize the plans and start constructing the new facilities by 2029.

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