Dauphin getting MRI, but fate of rural Manitoba ERs still uncertain after task force report

While changes to Winnipeg's health care system continue, rural communities are still largely in the dark about what will happen with their small, local emergency rooms and hospitals.

Province announces Dauphin MRI project, put on hold earlier this year, will go ahead

Manitoba's wait times task force recommended closing a number of emergency departments, but didn't specify where. Another task force suggested ERs in Boissevain, Man., and three other towns could be closed. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

The Manitoba city of Dauphin found out Thursday it will be getting a new MRI scanner which was put on hold by the province earlier this year — but other rural communities are still largely in the dark about the fate of their small, local emergency rooms and hospitals.

The province's wait times task force, which released its report on Wednesday, has recommended closing rural emergency departments that treat a low number of high-priority patients each year.

The report did not, however, suggest specific locations.

The task force was assembled by the provincial government earlier this year to look at wait times for emergency care, as well as surgical and diagnostic procedures, and identify ways to improve the process.

There are currently 63 emergency rooms in rural Manitoba, but 17 of those have long-term service suspensions. A number of others are periodically forced to close temporarily due to staff shortages.

"It is clear the current model is not ideal or sustainable," the report states.

"Rural and remote facilities of all sizes across Manitoba tend to have a critical lack of options for redirecting stable patients from [emergency departments] to more appropriate care sites.

"Few facilities have specialty outpatient clinics, there are no alternate/offsite diagnostic testing centres in these communities, and Minor Treatment Areas and Rapid Assessment Zones are generally not utilized due to lack of capacity, physical space and patient volumes."

Access issue

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen also didn't offer any hints about how those problems might be addressed on Thursday, when he discussed the report with media.

"In rural Manitoba, it's an access issue," he said.  "It's a different discussion in rural Manitoba and it's a very emotional discussion in rural Manitoba."
Earlier this year, a different task force struck by nine municipalities in southwestern Manitoba recommended closing four emergency rooms in the region and replacing them with urgent care centres. It recommended the closure of emergency rooms in the towns of Boissevain, Deloraine, Killarney and Melita.
Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen told reporters on Thursday that Shared Health Services Manitoba will examine rural health care access and report back in the spring. (CBC)

Goertzen said different recommendations on changes to rural health care were presented by the province's health regions. He said Shared Health Services — a new health organization which will help co-ordinate service delivery and planning across the province — will look at each of them and report back in the spring.

Dauphin MRI project to proceed 

Meanwhile, Goertzen announced Thursday the province is moving ahead with the installation of an MRI scanner at Dauphin's hospital, despite recommendations from the wait times task force that no new machines be installed in the province. 

"That was a difficult decision in the sense that there was different things to weigh," he said.

"On one hand, you had a facility that was essentially built. On the other hand you've got a wait times task force that says you could probably use the capacity that you probably had," Goertzen said, adding that residents in the city had already invested money into the partially built MRI facility.

The province says the installation of an MRI machine in Dauphin will now go ahead. It was halted earlier this year, pending a review. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Construction on an addition at the Dauphin hospital was already underway when the province announced the project would be halted earlier this year, pending the wait times review.

Advocates have said an MRI scanner in Dauphin would significantly reduce travel times for people, who currently have to go to Brandon or Winnipeg for scans.

"Wait times are one thing, but travelling to where the units exist now is another thing," said Doug Deans, chair of the health foundation in Dauphin. The group, along with others, advocated for the machine. 

"Being able to have this done within our community … is just fantastic," he added.

"A lot of people who are going for an MRI are not in the best of health or the best physical condition, and this beat the heck out of them to … drive back and forth," Deans said.

"Also, financially it was a huge burden on some people to pay the cost" of the travel.

Deans said many people wrote letters to the province and a petition was also started calling for the MRI in Dauphin. He believes having an MRI scanner will also aid in attracting new doctors and specialists to the area.

"This could be a huge feather in Dauphin's cap."

The Opposition NDP said it was pleased with the decision, but lamented the delay. 

Goertzen said the machine will now be ordered, but didn't offer a timeline for when it would be installed or up and running.