Western Manitoba will be short 20 doctors this summer, temporary ERs closures expected
'This is so far beyond what it used to be,' community member says of dire health-care staffing situation
The health authority in western Manitoba expects to be short 20 doctors by the end of this summer, as it struggles with finding staff at two personal care homes and to prevent ERs from temporarily closing.
Sue Stirling, who is part of a citizens' group fighting to keep health-care services alive in Grandview, was updated on Prairie Mountain Health's challenges at a meeting she and others from the community attended earlier this month.
The situation across the region is bleak, she said.
"This is so far beyond what it used to be, even [when we were] going through the pandemic," said Stirling, a member of the Grandview Health Care Solutions group.
"I guess the way to describe it would be the perfect storm," she said. "We've just come out of COVID. We have a shortage of nurses. We have a shortage of doctors."
Grandview, a town of about 1,400 that is 290 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, is feeling the consequences.
A week ago, its hospital went from supporting 14 beds to eight, due to staffing shortages which she hopes are temporary.
Empty care home beds due to lack of staff
Stirling said she learned during the meeting with Prairie Mountain Health CEO Brian Schoonbaert that there will be 20 doctor vacancies in the region by the end of the summer.
As well, 22 personal care home beds in Dauphin and nine beds in Gilbert Plains are sitting empty because there are not enough nurses to care for those residents.
In addition, Prairie Mountain anticipates it will have to temporarily close emergency departments in various locations throughout the summer, and temporarily shift some emergency departments to urgent care facilities due to staffing and servicing constraints.
That has been occurring in various Prairie Mountain communities over the years.
While staffing challenges didn't develop overnight, Stirling said the outlook for the months ahead is discouraging, especially as staff take their vacations.
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From her perspective in the meeting, Stirling said the message from the health authority was clear: "It is going to get worse during the summer because we are in such a bad position to cope right now."
She recently wrote a synopsis of the meeting, which was published in the community newspaper and circulated on Facebook.
Stirling said transparency was part of the reason she wrote the letter, "but more importantly it's about the community knowing that there are things happening in the background that are beyond anybody's control right now."
The Grandview Health Care Solutions community group is doing what it can by supporting existing staff and aiding recruitment efforts. It's working with Prairie Mountain on ways to find volunteers for basic tasks, such as answering phones, in the hospital and personal care home.
On its own, the municipality offers signing bonuses for new nurses who commit to staying for two years — up to $20,000 — and in a few days will take possession of a house that new nurses can share.
Grandview also offers financial support to help doctors run clinics.
Mayor Dwayne Bomak, who attended the meeting with Prairie Mountain, said "dangling that carrot" has brought health-care workers to the community.
"Government should be picking up the tab for this stuff I guess, but that's just not going to happen from what we've seen," he said.
"Basically, if we want health care in the community, this is something we have to do."
Home care solutions
At the recent meeting, Stirling said she was told the government is exploring several options to improve the health-care situation.
The province is looking at keeping some individuals who require lower levels of care at home, rather than moving them to a personal care home, by providing money to pay for home support. The government may look at businesses to establish that type of support, Stirling said.
As well, Stirling wrote in her letter, the province is looking at developing a provincial nursing agency.
When asked to respond to Stirling's letter and these proposed ideas, a government spokesperson directed CBC News to a statement from Prairie Mountain Health.
In it, Schoonbaert did not speak to potential solutions, but said staffing challenges are exacerbated in the summer while people are on vacation.
"There is also an ongoing challenge associated with finding available agency staff to pick up vacant shifts over the summer months," he said in an email.
"Hard-working and dedicated staff … have been picking up extra shifts whenever possible," he said.
"We wholeheartedly appreciate that level of commitment."
Schoonbaert said affected communities will be informed of any temporary facility closures.
EMS stations saved
Stirling said she appreciates that Prairie Mountain recently met with the citizens' group, and while some of what they heard was discouraging, there was some "good news."
Provincial plans to close more than a dozen EMS stations, announced in 2017, are on hold, at least until other health-care issues are sorted, she was told.
She says in Grandview, fighting for health care is about the vitality of their community, and she worries that losing the hospital and personal care home could be its death knell.
"The passion … for keeping the people in this community and providing better care closer to home is right across the age groups," she said.
"It's every profession. It's every walk of life. It's every age group. Everybody believes in the same thing."
With files from Riley Laychuk