New Brunswick

'Fragile' system blamed for prolonged obstetrics unit shutdown in Bathurst

The head of the Vitalité Health Network says that the obstetrics unit at the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst “should” reopen as planned next Monday, but the shutdown is symptomatic of a larger problem that still needs to be addressed.

Vitalité Health Network appears before the legislature's Crown corporations committee

The reopening of the obstetrics unit at the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst has been delayed because there aren't enough nurses. (Vitalité Health Network)

The head of the Vitalité Health Network says the obstetrics unit at the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst "should" reopen as planned next Monday, but the shutdown is symptomatic of a larger problem that still needs to be addressed.

CEO Gilles Lanteigne and other officials from the health authority told a committee of MLAs on Tuesday that the recruitment of nurses is becoming increasingly difficult. He said a reorganization of the system is needed.

"If you're asking if the system is more fragile today than it was two years ago, I'd say because of human resources and because we haven't made these technological and organizational changes, we are more fragile today," he said.

The obstetrics unit closed in October. In December, Vitalité and the provincial government announced it would reopen Jan. 7.

Vitalité Health Network CEO Gilles Lanteigne said nurse recruitment is becoming difficult. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

But what Lanteigne described as "unforeseen events" forced that to be pushed back to next Monday, Feb. 4. Some training wasn't completed on time and some staff on leave didn't come back to work as early as expected.

"We're confident we will reopen Monday," he told MLAs on the Crown corporations committee Tuesday morning.

But he told reporters after he could not offer a 100 per cent guarantee.

"To the best of my knowledge today, it will reopen," he said. "But there are always human factors."

Low birth rates

There are about 450 deliveries a year at the Chaleur hospital. Since the unit closed, women have been travelling to Miramichi or Campbellton to deliver their babies.

Vitalité said shrinking birth rates in the Chaleur area have translated into smaller nursing staffs, so there's less wiggle room when one or more nurses is not available.

A decade ago "we had one or two more nurses in the team," said Gisèle Beaulieu, Vitalité's vice-president of human resources. "So there was more room to manoeuvre."

Lanteigne told the committee that the health-care system needs to shift to more use of technology for e-consultations and to training nurses to play a range of different roles in the system.

"There has to be a reorganization," he said. "And clearly with this human resource shortage or challenge that we have, I don't think there's a choice left now."

Lanteigne said the health authority is experiencing the same difficulty in recruiting staff as other sectors in New Brunswick.

Vitalité blamed

But the francophone health lobby group Égalité Santé en français is blaming the health network's centralization of some administrative positions three years ago.

"They were not taking the right decisions locally or being there, or listening to the nurses and listening to what was not going right during the last three or four years," said Dr. Hubert Dupuis, a Moncton doctor.

Lanteigne rejected that criticism, saying the management changes have been working for three years, "so it's hard to do a causal relationship between obstetrics and a reorganization of services that took place three years ago."

The obstetrics unit at the Chaleur Regional Hospital is closed until Feb. 4. (CBC)

MLA Jean-Claude d'Amours, the Liberal health critic, said he doesn't want to see declining birth rates used as an excuse to reduce services or staffing levels at certain hospitals.

"We need to make sure we have the system in place that will provide the minimum people we need and a buffer in case something happens," he said.

But d'Amours did not offer any specific suggestions for how Vitalité should address recruitment problems at the same time.

"They have to look themselves in the mirror and make sure they'll have the staff to offer the services in each region," he said.

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