Northern Ontario First Nation health system only treating emergencies amid nurse shortage

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A remote First Nation in northern Ontario is limiting health services to emergencies only due to a lack of nurses in what the community’s health director is calling a dire situation for residents’ and nurses’ well-being.

Kashechewan First Nation said its nursing station, which provides health services for residents in the community of 1,900 people, dropped to three primary care nurses this week, down from its usual nine.

But health director Jonathan Solomon said he learned Friday evening that one of the three nurses in Kashechewan was being redeployed early, leaving just two nurses and two paramedics to provide care in the community.

That has left its health-care system in crisis, said Solomon, with services such as blood work, prenatal care and walk-in appointments not being offered.

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“It’s a very dire situation, when you look at how this is impacting the well-being of our people,” Solomon said in a telephone interview.

Kashechewan’s nursing station is staffed by rotation, with nurses arriving every two weeks. Solomon said fewer nurses have been arriving over the last six week as Canada’s health system contends with a shortage of staff driven by pandemic-related burnout and other factors.

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Solomon said he’s also concerned about the well-being of the few nurses currently working on the ground who are being stretched thin by the workload.

Hospitals elsewhere in Ontario have been forced to temporarily close emergency rooms over the summer due to nurse shortages and have sent patients to other hospitals during those periods. But Solomon noted that Kashechewan residents don’t have that option because the community is only accessible by plane.

“Remote communities, we’re impacted major time because we don’t have the privilege to drive to another health centre because we’re isolated, we’re remote,” he said. “Our health care is in crisis at this moment because of that.”

The Cree community located on the western James Bay coast is 460 kilometres north of the closest large urban centre in Timmins, Ont., according to the Kashechewan First Nation website. Smaller surrounding communities are only accessible by plane for most of the year.

Solomon said Kashechewancommunity leaders had a meeting with Indigenous Services Canada, which staffs the nursing station, on Friday morning to discuss solutions, and he’s hopeful some relief could come next week.

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However, he noted that solutions to such problems can often be slowed down by the bureaucratic processes.

Community leadership in Kashechewan has also calling for a nurse recruitment plan from Indigenous Services Canada, and a plan for the possibility that the community could have zero nurses on the ground soon.

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Randy Legault-Rankin, a spokesman from Indigenous Services Canada, said in addition to the First Nation, the department is working with Weeneebayko Area Health Authority, Ontario’s Ministry of Health, Ornge air ambulance and other health partners to provide primary care to community members.

“ISC is using all resources at its disposal to find immediate and viable solutions to providing health-care personnel to address the staffing situation at Kashechewan First Nation,” said Legault-Rankin.

“Staffing levels at the Kashechewan nursing station are being reassessed multiple times per day. In addition to exhausting national nursing and paramedic service contracts and standing offers, multiple staffing agencies and tribal councils have been contacted to identify additional health human resources to support Kashechewan.”

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Legault-Rankin said Indigenous Services Canada is focusing on responding to the community’s most critical health needs to limit the service disruption’s effects.

Solomon said conversations must be had in the wake of COVID-19’s impact on health-care services about how things can be done differently.

“I think we have to start thinking outside the box,” he said. “How do we improve what’s there? We know it’s not working the way it’s supposed to work.”

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