A hospital in southwestern Ontario is set to have its emergency department temporarily close once again as it grapples with ongoing staffing shortages, an issue the mayor of that community said Tuesday is only getting worse over time.
The Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance said Clinton Public Hospital, located in the municipality of Central Huron, would be closed on Thursday, but would return to reduced daily hours of operation — from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. — on Friday.
The hospital’s emergency department was also closed on Saturday due to staffing shortages, with patients redirected to other emergency rooms in the region.
“Increased demands on the health-care system, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, are leading to staffing vacancies. These pressures will continue throughout the summer,” HPHA stated in a news release.
Central Huron Mayor Jim Ginn said the situation is not yet “critical” as residents still have access to other hospital ERs in the region. But he voiced concerns about the health-care staffing shortages, which he said have been a recurring problem even before this summer.
“The issue is getting bigger and bigger all the time,” he said. “It’s disappointing.”
Andrew Williams, president and CEO of HPHA, said Clinton Public Hospital’s ER has had reduced hours since December 2019 because it lacks the staffing levels required to run safely on a 24/7 basis.
“It’s been a challenge. I think it’s showing itself clearly in Ontario, more visibly this year, but it has been a challenge nationally for quite some time,” Williams said, referring to staffing shortages in hospitals.
At the moment, there are seven vacant positions in Clinton Public Hospital’s emergency department, and Williams said HPHA is actively trying to recruit people to fill those spots. He said there are currently seven staff members working in the ER, including two nurses brought in from a private agency to fill in the gaps.
Some of the factors contributing to the staffing shortages include retirement, burnout among health-care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and the “gradual shift in available people to work in the health system against the demands,” Williams said.
Ultimately, there needs to be more long-term planning to address the chronic staffing shortages in the health-care sector, he said.
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Last week, Health Minister Sylvia Jones sent directives to the College of Nurses of Ontario and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, urging them to make every effort to register internationally educated nurses and doctors in the province as fast as possible.
Ginn called this a “good first step,” but said more internationally educated nurses and doctors are needed immediately to fill the gaps. The mayor said he plans to advocate for more funding for the health-care sector to recruit staff and retain them at an Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference this weekend.
“I think it’s mainly a funding issue,” Ginn said.
“I think it needs to be a better quality of life for (nurses, in particular) — so, you know, more time off, more respect from the community, more respect from other staff. They’re going through a lot and we need to be supportive of them.”
In a written statement, Stephen Warner, a spokesperson for Jones, said Ontarians “continue to have access to the care they need when they need it.”
The provincial government has added more than 3,500 new critical care, acute and post-acute hospital beds and more than 10,700 health care workers, including nurses and personal support workers, as well as 762 internationally educated nurses deployed to hospitals across Ontario, he said.
“Provinces across the country are facing the same pressures we’re facing here in Ontario,” Warner added.
“We know more work needs to be done and continue to work with all partners, including Ontario Health and the 140 public hospital corporations, the regulatory colleges, and health sector unions, to address any challenges on the ground.”
Hospitals across Ontario have also been reporting longer than usual wait times in their emergency departments in recent weeks as a result of staffing shortages and increases in patient volumes due to temporary closures of other ERs in their vicinity.
The Cambridge Memorial Hospital, for example, said wait times in its emergency department were “very high” Tuesday due to patient volumes, limited inpatient beds and ongoing staff shortages.
“If you are able, find alternate health-care options. If you cannot, rest assured patients will be seen in priority order,” the hospital said in a tweet.
The latest data from Ontario Health shows that the average wait time for a patient to receive a first assessment by a doctor in an emergency room in the province was 2.1 hours in the month of June.
The average length of stay in an emergency room for all patients admitted to a hospital was 19.1 hours.