Doctors warn staffing shortage could shutter Manitoba multiple sclerosis clinic

Click to play video: 'MS Clinic at HSC could close soon without financial support'
MS Clinic at HSC could close soon without financial support
The MS Clinic at the Health Sciences Centre is in danger of closing according to doctors and there are calls for funding support from the province. Rosanna Hempel reports. – May 19, 2022

Manitoba doctors are warning the multiple sclerosis clinic at Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre could close if the province and Shared Health don’t step in to provide support.

The acting head of the University of Manitoba’s neurology department turned to the media Thursday morning in what he called an act of “desperation.”

“We can’t afford to allow the MS clinic to close. It would take years to be able to restore it, and frankly, I’m just not waiting for that to happen,” Dr. Dan Roberts said.

The MS clinic could shutter in as little as 90 days, which would be disastrous for the about 2,800 patients who rely on its services, Roberts said. Other disciplines like stroke neurology would also suffer due to the closure, he added.

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Provincial officials have redirected the MS community’s concerns to Shared Health, Roberts said.

He sent the provincial health organization a letter last week outlining longstanding issues within Manitoba’s neurology services but has yet to receive an official response.

“More recently, when I indicated that the MS clinic was about to undergo a forced closure, I got two email responses expressing sympathy and asking what they could do to help,” Roberts said.

“It’s quite obvious what they can do to help. I’ve been asking for these resources and for confirmations for a long time.”

Shared Health needs to recruit eight to 10 neurologists over the next year to maintain services at the clinic and elsewhere, he said.

It would also need Allied Health personnel like occupational therapists and physiotherapists to not only help recruit new physicians but also retain the staff they already have, but funding hasn’t been approved, Roberts continued.

“I can’t recruit people with empty promises,” he said.

“We have to do some rapid recruitment here not only to get our numbers up and restore service but to retain the few people we have. Morale is very low.”

As it stands, the MS clinic is operating at about half the capacity required to deliver care to all of its patients, Roberts said. That capacity is slated to drop even more with the impending departure of one of its specialists, which could trigger even more departures.

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“That becomes just unsustainable.”

Shared Health is in the final stages of recruiting an MS neurologist for the clinic and has approved a nurse practitioner position but acknowledges more staff is needed, a spokesperson told Global News in an emailed statement.

However, Roberts said the incoming neurologist wouldn’t be ready to practise until February, while the nurse practitioner position only filled the spot of a person who went on maternity leave.

Shared Health says neurology services are an ongoing priority, but it will take time to fill any specialized positions.

“While there are neurology staffing challenges in the MS clinic, the clinic continues to provide care for patients living with the disease,” the spokesperson continued.

The MS clinic’s medical director, Dr. Ruth Ann Marrie, told Global News the staffing shortage needs to be addressed quickly.

“It’s been incredibly frustrating and disheartening to see that even though we know what kind of care people with MS need and deserve, and even though we know what the evidence says they should have, we have not been able to do that,” said Marrie, who also serves as a professor of community health sciences and medicine at the University of Manitoba.

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“We know that timely, effective access to comprehensive care is critical to optimizing outcomes for people with multiple sclerosis,” she said Thursday.

“We want to be able to deliver that care. I think people deserve that care.”

Roberts says that lack of care and those long waits are forcing patients living with epilepsy and MS to resort to hospital emergency departments — ERs that are already struggling with long wait times.

The MS Society of Canada says it’s critical Manitoba’s only MS clinic specializing in diagnostic and management of the disease remains open.

“We will be monitoring this situation closely as we continue to provide information, support, and advocacy to people affected by MS,” senior vice-president of mission, Benjamin Davis, said in an emailed statement to Global News.

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Epilepsy, stroke neurology services also strained

Roberts fears HSC’s epilepsy monitoring unit could suffer a similar fate as it battles a long-predicted shortage of electroencephalogram (EEG) technologists.

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“This was a slow-evolving train wreck, and they responded only after the crash occurred,” he said.

“A predictable disaster evolved and was basically allowed to progress until we ended up with so few technologists to do EEGs that we are now in a situation where the waiting lists for EEGs will continue to grow.”

HSC now has two to four technologists available on any given day, out of the 11 or 12 the hospital needs to be fully operational, Roberts wrote in his letter to Shared Health. With these staffing shortages, wait lists are “skyrocketing” at a rate that’s doubling every 15 to 20 weeks, he told media on Thursday.

He says Winnipeg struggles to keep technologists due to low-paying salaries compared to the rest of Canada.

Shared Health says it’s recruited six neurologists in the last year and a half: a cognitive neurologist, an MS neurologist, two stroke neurologists and two epileptologists — but Roberts countered, the provincial health organization is still eight to 10 short.

“Our efforts to attract these specialists and others will be aided by new initiatives to enhance neurology services in our province, including the adult epilepsy monitoring unit (EMU) announced last year and the new dedicated acute stroke unit being constructed at HSC Winnipeg,” the Shared Health spokesperson said.

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The province told Global News funding for the latter project will be in place when it’s “online.”

In his letter to Shared Health, Roberts said it’s unrealistic to expect the new 28-bed stroke unit to open this October.

“The stroke unit is likely to remain empty for another year because (Shared Health) has not approved the resources to provide physicians,” Roberts wrote in an email to Global News.

The EMU also won’t open for another two years as it takes that amount of time to train the EEG technologists to open it, he said.

Currently, Shared Health says an interprovincial agreement with the B.C. Institute of Technology allocates two EEG seats for Manitoba students.

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