Clearwater hospital emergency department enters third week of overnight closures

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B.C. government commits $118M to support family doctors
During a press conference on Wednesday, Health Minister Adrian Dix announces along with Doctors of BC $118M in short-term funds will be allocated to help stabilize family doctor practices in B.C. The program will begin on Oct. 1 and will only be available for four months, ending on Jan. 31, 2023 – Aug 24, 2022

The emergency department at Clearwater’s Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital will be closed overnight for its third straight week due to staffing shortages.

Between Aug. 27 and Sept. 2, the department’s opening hours will be limited from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Interior Health said in a Friday news release, continuing the stretch of closures that began Aug. 11.

“There are times in Clearwater, in our section of the North Thompson Valley, where there are no emergency medical staff,” Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell told Global News, citing challenges in ambulance staffing in the region as well.

“It’s absolutely terrifying. We’re playing Russian roulette with people’s health at this point.”

Other in-patient services in Clearwater are not impacted by the closure, Interior Health said.

During the diversion, patients in need of care are being told to go to Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops or the 100 Mile House District General Hospital. Both are about an hour-and-a-half drive away from Clearwater.

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Read more: Emergency department in Clearwater, B.C. hit by more staffing shortages and overnight closures

Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital’s emergency department has effectively been closed overnight since Aug. 3, with just three normal, 24-hour operating days on Aug. 9, 10 and 11.

The emergency department was also on diversion between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. from July 7 to 8, 12 to18, 21 to 21, and 27 to 30. Operating hours were switched from 8 a.m. on July 2 to 8 a.m. on July 3, and from 9:30 p.m. on July 18 to 7 a.m. on July 19 as well.

There were another eight closure announcements impacting the hospital’s emergency department hours in May and June.

Click to play video: 'Impact of Interior Health ER closures'
Impact of Interior Health ER closures

In an emailed statement, Interior Health acknowledged the staffing shortages are “unsettling” for impacted communities, but reassured residents it’s working hard to find “every possible solution.”

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“The number of vacant positions in Interior Health right now is about three times higher than it was before the pandemic,” it wrote.

“Our site leadership works every day to fill all shifts up to the last possible moment before making the decision to place an emergency department on diversion.”

Read more: Clearwater, B.C. mayor speaks out about repeated hospital ER closures

It cited a “nursing shortage” as the reason for latest round of closures, related to ongoing vacancies, sick calls and vacations. It has implemented a new rotation in Clearwater, it added, and six of the 11 registered nursing positions are currently filled.

Last week, the British Columbia Nurses’ Union sounded an alarm as some nurses at another Interior Health hospital increased found themselves working between 115 and 133 per cent overcapacity.

“Nurses cannot bear the burden of this any longer, they cannot work any more overtime than they’re already doing,” BCNU union vice-president Adriane Gear told Global News on Aug. 18.

“They can’t simply double the workload and manage to do something, and certainly in the ICU this has been a much more common situation.”

Click to play video: 'Staffing shortage forces temporary closure of another B.C. hospital ER'
Staffing shortage forces temporary closure of another B.C. hospital ER

Read more: B.C. nurses sound alarm, working up to 133% overcapacity at Kootenay hospital

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Clearwater’s Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital has been a regular feature in conversations about challenges in rural medicine in B.C., particularly staffing shortages.

“This is the big fear for us: that closures, at least overnight, become the standard for our hospital,” Blackwell said.

“It really isn’t something that can happen … we have quite a healthy tourism industry here, plus major industrial projects happening, so not having access to full-time emergency room services or regular ambulance is a big problem.”

Last week, after the union for paramedics in the province expressed concerns about shortages, BC Emergency Health Services said it was closely monitoring staffing levels across the province, and taking actions to fill shifts as quickly as possible when vacant.

When it comes to nurses, Gear said there were nearly 4,300 permanent vacancies in B.C., which is expected to need more than 26,000 nurses by 2031 in order to meet patient needs

She said she is aware of one nurse in the Creston, Cranbrook and Elkford area who had worked more than 15 shifts while on vacation, aware that if she did not work, an entire emergency department could shut down. In small, rural hospitals and health centres, she explained, the presence of a single nurse can make the difference between an open department and a diversion.

Read more: Concerns raised over string of temporary ER closures at rural B.C. hospitals

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On Wednesday, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Doctors of BC announced $118-million in short-term funds to help stabilize family physician practices and clinics where they operate. Combined with a new fee model expected in January, it could help reduce pressure on emergency departments.

Dix has said the province is in the midst of “transformational” multi-phased approach to revitalizing the health-care system, and acknowledged there is much work ahead.

The health minister maintains that since 2017 about 38,000 new staff have joined the medical system, including 600 new doctors. The province has also recently added 602 new nursing seats, and $12 million to streamline the recruitment of internationally-trained nurses.

A health ministry spokesperson told Global News that in its last budget B.C. dedicated $66 million over three years, with steady-state annual funding of $46.3 million by 2024, to add a targeted 3,000 full-time equivalent positions to health programs, including nursing and midwifery.

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