Plan to convert Seven Oaks ER to urgent care centre as of July 22 slammed as 'rush job'
Latest emergency room conversion comes as Manitoba government continues with health-care overhaul
The imminent conversion of the emergency room at Winnipeg's Seven Oaks Hospital to an urgent care centre is causing confusion for some and drawing criticism from health-care unions, but officials say they've done their homework and the time to make the shift is now.
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and Shared Health said Tuesday that the northwest Winnipeg hospital's ER will transform to a 24/7 urgent care centre on July 22, well in advance of the initially planned timeline.
"They are ready and they are prepared and they are proud of the work they do and they are going to support Seven Oaks throughout this transition," said WRHA chief operating officer Krista Williams.
The change was originally planned for September 2019. Then, late last month, the WRHA confirmed the conversion would take place this summer, but didn't specify when.
After July 22, the urgent care centre at Seven Oaks will, like other urgent care centres, handle patients with non-life-threatening but urgent same-day issues.
"We're hopeful with seeing this to an end that we can stabilize the system and move forward," WRHA president and CEO Real Cloutier said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
Cloutier said related in-patient closures, including winding down the Seven Oaks intensive care unit, will take place Sept. 20 as reshuffling staff and filling vacancies at other Winnipeg sites is completed.
'Horrible' to lose ER
The accelerated changeover sparked outcry from the public and staff at Seven Oaks, who protested the change last month and again today.
Sonia Szelemej was at the hospital to see her father, who was rushed to the Seven Oaks emergency room on Thursday due to heart issues.
She worries about how the conversion will affect people living near Seven Oaks who rush there in distress.
"I can see that there's a lot of care here and it would be horrible to see that this hospital [emergency room] should be shut down," she said.
"My father is one of many that really needs the help, and if they cut it down to just [urgent] care, I don't know what's going to happen."
The head of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents most hospital staff in Manitoba save for doctors and nurses, called the plan a "rush job."
"You know how rush jobs are — they're not always the best jobs," said CUPE Local 204 president Debbie Boissonneault.
The accelerated conversion to urgent care, she said, means that "the community won't have everything that they need to know about this change, and people inside are feeling frustrated."
The shift comes amid the overhaul of Manitoba's health-care system by the Progressive Conservative government under Premier Brian Pallister.
The overhaul, which began in 2017 based on recommendations from consultant David Peachey, has included the consolidation of Winnipeg's six ERs into three as a way of streamlining care.
'Safety could be jeopardized'
Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said her members are primarily concerned the expedited transition will lead to a spike in emergency patient volumes at the three remaining Winnipeg ERs, which might not have enough staff to meet demand.
"By rushing through these changes and ignoring the advice of nurses, they have created serious human resource challenges," she said in a statement.
"Patient safety could be jeopardized due to a shortage of nurses and other front-line staff. This is a mess of the government's creation and is another indication they are having trouble recruiting and retaining nurses."
Jackson also questioned whether the changeover tracks with more recent recommendations from Peachey's review of the province's health-care changes. Following that review, the consultant suggested the government complete a risk assessment and slow the second phase of the health system overhaul.
No interruption in service: WRHA
Cloutier said the push to convert Seven Oaks sooner rather than later came as a result of undertaking such a risk assessment recently.
"The continued instability was actually going to lead to more staff leaving," he said.
Williams said Seven Oaks has been struggling with nurse and physician vacancies, and she suggested moving up the conversion date will help staff.
"The site has taken every measure possible to try and mitigate those vacancies, but at some point we had to make a decision for safety and quality across our system, plus knowing that the rest of our system is ready and prepared for this conversion," said Williams.
She also emphasized that in the period between now and Sept. 20, walk-in patients at Seven Oaks will still be served and there won't be any interruption in service during the transition. The hospital has added acute care beds as a buffer in the interim to ensure it can handle all kinds of patients, she said.
Health Minister Cameron Friesen said the government has learned a lot during the health-care overhaul.
Friesen said he is confident from consultations with medical officials that the emergency services across Winnipeg are ready to handle the change.
'This is unreal'
NDP Leader Wab Kinew repeated past criticisms of the conversion. He said the change is irresponsible and really about "political expediency" ahead of the Sept. 10 provincial election.
Kinew echoed Jackson in suggesting the closure has to do with Seven Oaks being low on staff, and isn't about improving patient care.
"This is unreal," Kinew said. "We know the Pallister government is not ready to close this emergency room and yet they're rushing ahead with this plan anyway, simply because they're short-staffed."
Seven Oaks will be the last of the three Winnipeg emergency rooms to be converted. The ER at Victoria General Hospital became an urgent care centre in the fall of 2017. The ER at Concordia Hospital followed suit last month.
Peter Milner lives near Seven Oaks and said he wasn't sure what to think about the conversion plans.
"I just think it requires enough public education to settle people's minds that, again, hopefully the end result is going to be a good one," he said. "I'm not so sure I'm seeing enough public education.'
A public awareness campaign will be launched this week to let people know Seven Oaks will no longer treat emergency patients as of July 22, the WRHA says.
With files from Marina Von Stackelberg