Community’s fight to preserve local health care echoes problems across Ontario: ONA

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Ontario’s health ministry faces questions over doctor and nurse shortages
RELATED: Ontario's Ministry of Health is under fire after comments suggesting there is no doctor shortage in the province and how privacy officials handled requests for data about nursing shortages. Global News' Queen's Park bureau chief has the story of two contradictory access to information decisions and controversial negotiations with doctors – May 13, 2024

The small community of Durham, Ont., is fighting to keep its local health services after it was announced earlier this year that its hospital would be reducing most services due to staff shortages.

The small community located 40 minutes south of Owen Sound found out in March that South Bruce Grey Health Centre needed to reduce the emergency room hours at its Durham location from 24 hours a day to 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Then, in April, it informed the community that all 10 inpatient beds at the site would be moved to the health centre’s sister sites in Walkerton and Kincardine, which are 30 minutes to over an hour away.

The hospital has said the changes are the result of severe staffing shortages, but the changes to emergency services will not come into effect until June 3.

“Our goal is to stabilize our staffing to ensure that we can continue to provide safe and reliable care at the Durham site,” a spokesperson for the health centre wrote in a statement.

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Since then, the community has been rallying together, organizing marches and trips to Queen’s Park to try to reverse the decision, forming a group called the Save the Durham Hospital Committee.

“The community does have lots of concerns. With the emergency department having reduced hours of 7 p.m. to 5 p.m., we know that emergencies can happen 24 hours a day, and having to go to other hospitals may not always be that easy to do,” said Dawn McNabe, co-chair of Save the Durham hospital Committee.

She worries that not enough is being done to address the underlying issues to stabilize staffing levels.

“There are times where you just can’t rely on being able to get to another community,” McNabe said.

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“I understand the rationale behind the urban centres being the specialty locations for their teaching practices and clinical studies and such, but the rural hospitals, we still need those.”

McNabe said the group has collected more than 3,700 signatures on a petition to save the hospital and delivered more than 380 letters written by community members to the premier and minister of health.

March to save the South Bruce Grey Health Centre in Durham, Ont. Supplied by Save the Durham Hospital Committee
Community members marching to save the South Bruce Grey Health Centre in Durham, Ont. Supplied by Save the Durham Hospital Committee

For the Ontario Nurses Association, what’s happening in Durham speaks to a larger issue in the province: not enough health care staff to keep up with demand.

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“The nursing shortages are definitely creating the situation that we’re in with the closures of the emergency departments in rural communities and really not so rural communities in some cases,” said Angela Preocanin, association vice-president.

Since 2022, she says there have been 145 emergency room closures.

She said hospitals continue to struggle with staffing, leading to their current staff feeling overworked and wanting to leave. Another issue she points to is increased levels of violence towards health-care staff from patients.

“When you’re short-staffed, and you have violence in your emergency departments, that creates an environment that leaves people with moral injury and, inevitably, they leave,” Preocanin notes.

To fix the issue, she wants the government to spend more on health care instead of switching more services to a privatized model.

A report from the Final Accountability Office of Ontario in 2023 estimated that by 2027 to 2028, the province would be short 33,000 nurses and personal support workers to meet demand.

The report also said that from 2022 to 2028, the province allocated $21.3 billion less than necessary to fund current health sector programs and deliver on its program expansion commitments in hospitals, home care and long-term care.

A statement from a Ministry of Health spokesperson writes that the province is investing in the publicly funded health-care system by increasing the health-care budget by 31 per cent since 2018.

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The spokesperson said the Ford government is making it easier for internationally educated health-care workers to work in Ontario while allowing health-care workers registered in other provinces and territories to immediately start working in Ontario. They said the province has also removed financial barriers for nurses wanting to gain more skills.

They said that Ontario is registering a record number of new nurses for two years in a row, adding 32,000 new nurses and another 30,000 studying nursing at one of Ontario’s colleges or universities.

But Preocanin said they are hearing stories about only a small number of nurses graduating who actually want to enter the profession.

“We have to really recognize that all of our sectors, hospital, long-term care, home care, all need to be respected for the work that they do,” she notes. “We need to see the government want to provide the best care possible to the people of Ontario by ensuring that we keep a publicly funded system.”

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