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Five N.B. hospitals close or reduce hours ahead of weekend citing staffing shortage

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WATCH: New Brunswick emergency departments are facing staffing shortages and growing COVID-19 cases among staff still on the job. Some facilities have been forced to close or reduce their operating hours this weekend, including at least five hospitals under the Horizon Health Network. Nathalie Sturgeon has more – Jul 9, 2022

Sabrina Harnish lost her family doctor back in October.

Since then, to deal with her auto-immune issues, she’s been navigating virtual appointments that don’t always meet her needs, trying to find space in already over-booked after-hours clinics, or taking a trip to her local emergency department.

However, recently, the emergency departments aren’t looking like a viable option.

“There are a lot of ERs that are closing,” she said. “I’m experiencing a bit of a health concern that I can’t see anybody about because access is a problem. Our system was on the verge of collapse even before the pandemic happened and now with all these external stressors, it’s even worse.”

In the past few days, five emergency departments under the oversight of Horizon Health Network have been closing or had their hours reduced due to staffing shortages and more staff contracting COVID-19.

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The Sussex Health Centre is closed on July 9 and 10. While the Sackville Memorial Hospital will be closed overnight this coming weekend.

The Upper River Valley Hospital, about an hour away from Fredericton, was also reporting a physician shortage and directing patients to seek treatment at other hospitals.

In Oromocto, where Harnish lives, the hospital was closed Friday with the plan to reopen for the weekend.

“From not having a family doctor, to eVisit not being the effective measure to help with their concern, to not being able to get into a clinic, to not even being able to visit an ER, so that sounds like a lot and it is a lot,” Harnish said.

Harnish said the suggestions that the health authorities and the government put forward do not meet everyone’s needs — and the emergency department is often the only option.

“Our local hospital is closed here and they were at reduced hours to begin with,” she said speaking to the Oromocto Hospital.

Dr. Mark MacMillan, the president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, said closing any emergency department is not a decision that is made lightly.

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“We need to stress to New Brunswickers that while it’s unfortunate, we can’t have an ER open if it is can’t be staffed appropriately and safely,” he said in an interview on Friday.

MacMillan said it is working toward solutions, both short-term and long-term, adding there has been no discussion of the closure of any rural hospitals.

“In fact, our main conversations are around trying to enhance care across this province,” MacMillan said.

No one from Horizon Health Network was available for an interview on Friday but in a statement  Margaret Melanson, vice-president of Clinical Services/Quality and Patient-Centred Care with Horizon Health Network, said closures of emergency departments are a last resort.

“Our pre-existing staffing challenges have been amplified this summer in the wake of a recent rise in COVID-19 activity, as well as the need to provide our staff with vacation time,” she said in the statement.

“We are working on a number of strategies aimed at improving ED services in all of our hospitals and are committed to providing sustainable access for residents.”

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It’s little comfort for people like Harnish, though, who worry about accessing the right care in an emergency.

“When leaders think about saving money, I would like them to think again,” Harnish said. “I would like them to make an investment into the future of our province and spend some money on our health-care system because it desperately needs it.”

Some solutions have been deployed, according to a statement from Horizon Health Network.

Two emergency room physicians recently left the Sackville Memorial Hospital to focus on their family practice within the community, the health authority confirmed on Friday.

“This condition has presented a significant barrier to our recruitment efforts in Sackville, as very few candidates are interested in managing a family practice while also taking on additional duties in the ED,” said Dr. Jody Enright, Horizon’s medical director for Moncton and Sackville.

“This was also identified as a concern by some of our more experienced physicians who are approaching retirement. By removing this requirement, we believe it will significantly enhance our chances of identifying, recruiting and ultimately retaining more family physicians and ED physicians in Sackville moving forward.”

Enright said the health authority is aggressively recruiting doctors specifically interested in emergency medicine to replace those who are no longer required to take on a share of the shifts in the emergency department.

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The Department of Health did not respond to request for comment by deadline.

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