Nfld. & Labrador

8 emergency rooms closed across Newfoundland on Labour Day weekend

Health Minister Tom Osborne says the provincial government is working on solutions, including a request for proposals on virtual care to be released this week. Meanwhile, Hilda Whelan, mayor of Whitbourne, says everyone in her community is disappointed and worried.

Health Minister says solutions are coming while Whitbournemayor says all residents can do is pray

Anyone looking to enter the emergency room at the William H. Newhook Health Centre will see this sign, saying the area has been temporarily closed. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Eight emergency rooms are closed in Newfoundland for varying amounts of time this Labour Day long weekend. 

Eastern Health says the U.S. Memorial Health Centre in St. Lawrence is closed from Friday until Monday at 8 a.m. and the Dr. William H. Newhook Community Health Centre in Whitbourne will be closed for another week, with a reopening now planned for Sept. 12.

In the Western Health region, the Bonne Bay Health Centre is using virtual ER services until Sunday at 8 a.m., and then going virtual again from Monday at 8 a.m. to Wednesday. 

Virtual ER services are also being used in Central Health. Emergency rooms are closed at the Connaigre Peninsula Health Centre in Harbour Breton, the Dr. Y.K. Jeon Kittiwake Health Centre in New-Wes-Valley, and A.M. Guy Memorial Health Centre in Buchans throughout the entire long weekend and scheduled to reopen Wednesday morning. However, there is a six-hour period on Tuesday when virtual ER assessments will be available at all three health centres. 

Additionally, the Lewisporte Health Centre's ER is closed Sunday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and the ER at Green Bay Health Centre in Springdale was closed from Friday till Sunday morning.

In all cases, the health authorities say the closures are due to staff shortages. In the event of an emergency, authorities say to call 911 or head to the nearest open ER. 

A man stands at the microphone during a press conference. He stands in front of a Newfoundland and Labrador flag.
Health Minister Tom Osborne hopes a $50,000 increase in an incentive for family physicians will reduce the doctor shortage. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

"This is the reality of the times we're living in, where healthcare professionals are in short supply," said Health Minister Tom Osborne. He says the situation should improve in the coming weeks. 

"Over the next month or two, as people get back into the work routine from taking vacation or time off during the summer, we certainly hope to see some of the pressures, in terms of diversions, ease a little. [But] it won't resolve all of the issues."

Osborne says the province is still working on solutions and will continue offering bursaries, signing bonuses and other incentives.

"We're increasing the coverage for family physicians setting up in the province from $100,000 to $150,000 for a startup incentive."

As well, in the coming days the provincial government plans to release a request for proposals on virtual-care services.

"The optimal coverage is to have a family doctor, or to have a physician in the emergency department," Osborne said. "But certainly virtual care is better than not having access to a physician or the emergency department.

"We're aiming to provide coverage in areas where coverage is lacking."

A woman with a red shirt and glasses looks past the camera.
Whitbourne Mayor Hilda Whelan says that the continued closure of the Dr. H. Newhook Community Health Centre is concerning for the town. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Whitbourne Mayor Hilda Whelan said she isn't surprised the town's health centre will remain closed for at least another week after already being closed for much of the summer.

"We don't have the doctors," she said. "Simply put, we need doctors, nurses, paramedics."

Whelan said the community has lost three doctors and needs at least two more for the centre to return to normal operations.

While the province's financial incentives should help in some way, Whelan says, she thinks the real issue is a change in regulations that the College of Physicians and Surgeons that sees Canada accepting a limited number of internationally trained doctors a year. 

"You still need these foreign doctors," she said. "We have been serviced very well by foreign doctors."

Whelan said the rule needs to be changed to allow more foreign doctors to work in the country. While she's optimistic the situation will improve soon, she said the doctor shortage is still a worry for people living in the area and has affected her personally. 

"I'm a cancer survivor. I receive a bone treatment every six months since I had my cancer. My treatment was delayed five months."

She isn't the only member of her family to face the challenges.

"My brother had a heart attack," she said. "They took him in the car and took him over. He said, 'No good to call an ambulance, I'd be here for four hours.' This is the way it is.

"All these people that are out there not getting these issues attended to, they're getting sicker and they're going to take more time and more doctors to look after them."

Everyone is disappointed, said Whalen, who added townspeople have been asking her what they should do if an urgent emergency arises. Her response is simple: "All you can do is pray it doesn't happen."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from William Ping, Andrew Hawthorn and Mark Quinn