During the month of December 2020, the emergency departments for three hospitals serving Eastern Shore communities were closed 40 times.
The breakdown in closures comes from the Nova Scotia Health Authority and shows how many times the Tri-Facilities (Eastern Shore Memorial Hospital, Twin Oaks Memorial Hospital, and Musquodoboit Valley Memorial Hospital) were forced to close their emergency departments because of doctor and nurse shortages.
Eastern Shore Memorial was closed 14 times due to physician shortages, Musquodoboit Valley was closed 13 times due to the same issue in staffing, and Twin Oaks was closed 13 times because of nurse shortages.
“You see it rippled throughout the entire system, it’s not just about even our area,” Dr. Lisa Bonang said, a rural family physician who has practiced in her home community of Musquodoboit harbour for more than two decades.
“Within Colchester Regional, you’re going to see that ripple effect in terms of Dartmouth General. It’s not just isolated, those sick people need to go someplace and it’s going to increase demand in other places that are also stretched,” Bonang said.
Bonang also works shifts at the Twin Oaks Memorial Hospital emergency department. She says she treats an average of 20 patients per shift with a wide range of needs.
In March 2020, the three hospitals had a combined 12 emergency department closures.
That number steadily increased throughout the year. For example, in November 2020 the emergency departments closed a combined 33 times.
According to the data from the Nova Scotia Health Authority, Twin Oaks continues to experience a shortage in nurses and the other two hospitals, Eastern Shore Memorial and Musquodoboit Valley continue to experience physician shortages.
The provincial health minister, Leo Glavine, doesn’t shy away from discussing retention challenges facing rural communities.
Glavine addressed the challenge during a teleconference cabinet meeting on Thursday.
“I’ve been working with the Nova Scotia Health Authority who certainly have their nose to the grindstone as it were, in terms of recognizing the challenge, helping with searching out locums to ease some of the pressure,” Glavine added.
According to the province, the Locum Incentive Program is helping to fill challenging shifts in rural areas. The program was launched in 2018 and has covered more than 800 days since its inception.
Bonang also points to a federal program that she feels would help the province in retaining desperately needed nurses and physicians in rural communities.
It’s called the Canada Student Loan Forgiveness for Family Doctors and Nurses and wipes out thousands of dollars in Canadian student loans for those specific health professionals who commit to working in designated rural communities.
The program has been around since 2013 but Bonang says Eastern Shore communities aren’t considered rural under it because they are part of the Halifax Regional Municipality.
“During the amalgamation, the entire of Halifax County became apart of HRM and that extends all the way to Ecum Secum,” she said.
Bonang says elected officials, particularly MLAs, should approach Ottawa for an exemption to be made so that the program can be accessible.
“They can get an exemption, it’s a simple thing. They can clearly look and say, ‘Okay you’re not metropolitan,'” Bonang said.
Glavine was asked about why work hasn’t been done to secure an exemption for access to this program but he didn’t answer the question directly.
He instead focused on discussing the 2019 Master Agreement that serves as a new contract for doctors until 2023.
“Having our ER doctors the highest paid in Atlantic Canada under their new agreement. I think is going to pave the way for more shifts being filled,” Glavine.
The Master Agreement covers a wide range of provincial investments being made into health care across Nova Scotia.
The province also points out that despite ED closures, 911 and 811 services are available to all citizens 24/7.