British Columbia

Leaders call for more government action to keep rural ERs open 24 hours/day across the province

A week after the province announced measures to address ongoing emergency room closures on Vancouver Island, community leaders in other areas say more should be done for all rural hospitals.

'Lives are at stake,' says Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris

Community leaders in rural B.C. are calling on government to help keep emergency rooms open 24 hours a day. (Submitted by: B.C. Emergency Health Services)

It's a cold, wintry day in northern B.C. The roads are icy and snow is heavily falling.

Then you experience a medical emergency. 

The problem: the local hospital is closed. Now you're forced to travel hours, in treacherous conditions, for the medical attention you need.

That's the reality for many in rural and remote parts of the province, as emergency rooms continue to face closures due to staffing shortages.

And that's why leaders in those areas are calling on the province to improve emergency health services in their communities. 

Last week, the province announced measures that will, ideally, provide more certainty for residents in and around northern Vancouver Island, where two emergency rooms will now be closed overnight, and the next, closest hospital will remain open 24 hours a day.

The province also announced a $30-million investment to recruit and retain staff for that area. 

'Lives are at stake': MLA

In northern B.C., the Mackenzie and District Hospital was closed for more than 300 hours in 2022. It's a two-hour drive to the nearest hospitals, which are in Prince George and Chetwynd — and the latter faced more than 200 hours of closures itself in 2022. 

"It is a concern," Mackenzie Mayor Joan Atkinson told Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk. 

The Mackenzie and district hospital and health centre
The emergency department at the MacKenzie and District Hospital is one of many in B.C. facing ongoing, unpredictable closures. (Google Maps)

It's one of many rural hospitals facing ongoing, inconsistent closures in the province due to staffing shortages. 

Atkinson said her community in particular is in need of more registered nurses and paramedics. 

"Even if our hospital was never on diversion, we still need reliable professional care to move people out of the community when they need to go to a regional hospital," she said. 

"You can't have a baby in this hospital. If there's any major medical event like a stroke or a heart attack, those people have to get down to Prince George."

More paramedics in MacKenzie, B.C., would help alleviate emergency health-care concerns in the community, the mayor says. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris is urging the provincial government to improve emergency health services in rural communities. 

"It is simply unrealistic for people in this region to either wait for an ambulance, which is so hard to get as it is, or face extensive travel to another facility," Morris said. 

"Lives are at stake."

Atkinson said a group of about 30 mayors from across B.C. are working on a plea to the province for help dealing with health-care shortages as a whole. 

"We need to staff up all of our hospitals and we need to staff up all of our paramedic units across the province."

B.C. Liberals, doctor call on B.C. NDP to do more

Last week, the B.C. Liberals joined a Port Hardy physician in calling on government to approve the use of physician assistants — health-care professionals who can conduct patient interviews and exams, write prescriptions and assist in surgery. 

"At a time when our health-care system so clearly needs all the help it can get, you'd think that the NDP would jump at the opportunity to bring more trained medical professionals to our province," health critic Shirley Bond said. 

"British Columbians expect the NDP government to use every tool in the toolbox to deliver the health care people need and deserve."

Northern Health was unable to provide comment before deadline. 

The Ministry of Health says it is working to try to address doctor shortages in rural communities through several ongoing recruitment and retention initiatives, including expanding the number of medical student seats at the University of British Columbia's medical school, increasing the number of residency positions for international medical graduates at UBC, and more funding to help rural doctors address the rising costs of living and working in rural communities as part of the new Physician Master Agreement.

However, it did not expand on efforts to increase the number of other health-care professionals, such as nurses and paramedics. 

"Issues of staffing and retention will not be resolved overnight," a ministry spokesperson said in an email to CBC.

"The solution to these problems requires both immediate action and long-term investments."

With files from Akshay Kulkarni and Daybreak North