Temporary emergency department closures in southwestern Manitoba not surprising: officials

There is no shock, but rather disappointment and sadness following Prairie Mountain Health's recent announcement that some emergency departments in southwestern Manitoba will see services temporarily clawed back or suspended over the next couple of months.

Service suspensions in place until at least the end of August

A file photo shows a doctor checking on a patient. Emergency department services at the Souris Hospital will remain available 24 hours per day, except for Mondays and Wednesdays, until at least the end of August, says Prairie Mountain Health. (Thomas Kienzle/The Associated Press)

Some community leaders in southwestern Manitoba say they are disappointed, but not shocked, following Prairie Mountain Health's recent announcement that some emergency departments in the region will see services temporarily clawed back or suspended over the next couple of months.

The changes are the result of various staffing shortages, staff leaves and vacations, the regional health authority said in a news release last Thursday.

Darryl Jackson, mayor of the municipality of Souris-Glenwood, said the municipality was given ample warning by Prairie Mountain Health that emergency department services were going to be disrupted during the summer months.

Souris, about 250 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, still has its emergency department services open 24 hours most days, with the exception of Mondays and Wednesdays until at least the end of August. 

"There [aren't] enough doctors to go around," Jackson said Monday.

"If you've got what you consider a full complement, and you lose one, or some of these places are losing a couple of doctors at a time ... it's not a great place to be in."

The health region has hired a nurse practitioner to help the two physicians who currently work in the municipality with office visits, hospital rounds, personal care and other needs. However, nurse practitioners aren't allowed to be the only ones at an emergency department.

Souris-Glenwood lost one of its three physicians at the end of June and is on the hunt for a new one, which only adds to the not-so-ideal situation.

"You don't just replace a doctor by snapping your fingers," Jackson said Monday.

In the meantime, residents in the municipality may be forced to drive 30 or 40 minutes to the nearest centre with round-the-clock emergency services, which is Brandon.

Jackson hopes it doesn't come to that, and that's why the municipality is taking matters into its own hands by bringing on a third physician by the start of September.

The municipality's recruitment committee has had four or five meetings already, with another scheduled for Tuesday.

The committee is looking at fundraising and offering an enticing package to bring a physician to Souris-Glenwood, but the health region's dependency on recruiting doctors internationally is something Jackson feels needs to change moving forward if rural centres are to keep doctors beyond their initial contract.

"In most cases, they don't put down roots in any of these small communities," he said. "Quite often there's an ethnic factor, a religious factor, or kids get to school age and want them to attend particular schools. It's something that these small towns — Souris being one of them — can't offer."

Jackson believes the answer is more locally based individuals going to medical school, with the idea that they'd become general practitioners who like living in smaller communities. 

'A common occurrence in the southwest': reeve

Municipality of Two Borders Reeve Debbie McMechan was made aware that Melita's emergency department and hospital admissions were being suspended from June 30 until the end of August during a meeting with the Town of Melita and Prairie Mountain Health officials last Wednesday.

That was just a day before the health authority made the news public.

McMechan, whose municipality is in the far southwest corner of the province, expressed her disappointment in the temporary closure Friday.

"Sadness that this has sort of become a common occurrence in the southwest.… We have experienced it a lot out here," she said.

While it will be a hardship for some people in the region, McMechan said she's aware the health authority is in "a unique situation."

"I think the people at Prairie Mountain Health didn't make this decision for the summer closure on a whim. They definitely did something that they didn't want to do, but in my mind they had no choice."

A woman sits in an office, looking toward the camera.
Debbie McMechan, reeve of the RM of Two Borders, says disruptions to emergency services in southwestern Manitoba have been a common occurrence. (Submitted by Debbie McMechan)

Personal care home staff in towns within the municipality were offered incentives that led them to other hospitals, which necessitated the summer closure of emergency services at the Melita Health Centre, McMechan said.

She believes rural Manitoba regions have "had a bit or an axe hanging over our head" ever since the 2017 release of the Peachey report. It prompted a massive overhaul of emergency rooms in Winnipeg, but didn't appear to offer much hope for rural medical centres, said McMechan.

But she says things sometimes have to get really bad before they get better, and thinks that's what it might take before rural Manitoba communities no longer have to worry about repeatedly filling open medical staff openings.

"I think that for the hospitals on the Prairies to work effectively, we have to maintain good health care, good primary care out in the rural areas because we would simply overwhelm the larger centres."


Nathan Liewicki is an online reporter at CBC Manitoba. He has worked at several newspapers, including the Brandon Sun, the Regina Leader-Post and the Edmonton Journal.


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