Nfld. & Labrador

As rural ER closures continue across N.L., one mayor says there's no end in sight

Residents in rural communities in the Eastern Health and Central Health regions are becoming fed up with emergency room closures, say local officials.

Doctor shortage to blame, say local politicians

A large rectangular sign stating "Bonavista Hospital Emergency Department is OPEN TODAY. The number to call for ambulance service is 468-2244, or call 911." in green letters. The Eastern Health logo is placed on either side of the message.
Eastern Health has placed a sign outside the hospital in Bonavista to indicate if the emergency room is open or closed. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Eastern Health has installed a large sign outside Bonavista Peninsula Health Centre to let patients know if the emergency room — which is supposed to operate 24/7 — is open or closed.

For example, last week, the emergency room was closed for 48 hours, forcing anyone in the area experiencing a medical emergency to travel about an hour and a half to Clarenville.

Craig Pardy, Progressive Conservative MHA for Bonavista, said the sign is ominous.

"We just are concerned about the days ahead and hopefully to minimize and eliminate those interruptions in the future," he told CBC News.

Rural communities across Newfoundland and Labrador are in similar situations, with local residents and politicians sharing Pardy's concerns that things may get worse.

Joshua Clark, who receives regular Remicade treatment for Crohn's disease at the Bonavista Peninsula Health Centre, said the operating status of the emergency room has become unpredictable.

"It's so fluid that it changes frequently. Not knowing is a scary thing," Clark said.

A person wearing a blue dress shirt stands outside on a sunny day.
Progressive Conservative MHA Craig Pardy says he's concerned about the future of the Bonavista emergency room. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Clark said the drive from Bonavista to Clarenville could mean the difference between life and death.

4 closures in Central Health announced Monday

As of Monday evening, Central Health had announced temporary emergency room closures at four separate health centres, in addition to previous closures announced last week.

Emergency services at Dr. Y.K. Jeon Kittiwake Health Centre in New-Wes-Valley will be closed for parts of Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

"Central Health continues its efforts in recruitment for this area for both physicians and non-physician health-care workers. We apologize for this interruption of service and thank the public for their understanding and patience," said the health authority in a press release.

The emergency room's most recent closure ended at 8 a.m. on Monday.

New-Wes-Valley deputy mayor Michael Tiller said the area has recently lost two doctors, and that loss trickles down to emergency services. He said when the emergency room closes, residents have to travel about 90 minutes to James Paton Memorial Health Centre in Gander.

In addition to his role with the town, Tiller also worked as a paramedic for 20 years. He said the closures have increased the strain on emergency workers.

They're also the worst he's ever seen. Tiller said the closures and the doctor shortage are hindering the town's efforts to attract businesses and young people.

"If you're from an area and you're thinking about moving home, will you move to an area if you're uncertain about your health care?" he said.

CBC News has asked Eastern Health and Central Health for comment.

Harbour Breton Mayor Lloyd Blake says some residents have told him health care has gotten worse over the past four decades. (Garrett Barry/CBC News)

Some emergency room closures — such as one beginning Tuesday in Harbour Breton — are being supported, at least partially, by virtual ER services. Patients are still transported to larger hospitals as required.

Mayor Lloyd Blake said residents have been dealing with the closures for months.

"[There] don't seem to be any end in sight at this point in time," he said.

He said the town's aging population is especially worried about travelling to Grand Falls-Windsor for emergencies if the closures continue into the winter.

"People right now in Harbour Breton, they're reflecting back … and saying, 'Well, in 40 years we haven't advanced very much.'" 

'Get your rear in gear'

Emergency services at Dr. William H. Newhook Community Health Centre in Whitbourne, which serves about 20,000 area residents, were shut down for an entire week beginning Monday. 

A person wearing a red shirt and glasses sits inside, speaking and looking at the camera.
Whitbourne Mayor HIlda Whelan says the province's doctor shortage is to blame for the emergency room closures in the town. (CBC)

Whitbourne Mayor Hilda Whelan said she's been assured the clinic is not closing permanently, but added the emergency room diversion is part of a larger problem — the province's doctor shortage.

According to the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, about 125,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador don't have a family doctor.

The provincial government has touted several solutions to the shortage, including a new deputy minister of physician recruitment and retention, collaborative-care clinics and even a direct line to the premier.

Whelan said she hasn't seen the provincial government do enough to stop rural clinics and emergency rooms from closing — and doesn't believe the province's doctor recruitment initiatives are sufficient.

"If it's because of lack of doctors, then get your rear in gear and get out and get some doctors," she said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darrell Roberts is a reporter for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John's.

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