Nfld. & Labrador

'This is a problem for everybody,' says rural N.L. mayor on doctor shortages

Bonavista Mayor John Norman and Whitbourne Mayor Hilda Whelan say the health-care system is in crisis, with very few solutions being offered.

Mayors of Whitbourne and Bonavista dealing with closures of emergency departments

The emergency departments in both Whitbourne and Bonavista have been closed due to staffing issues in recent days. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Mayors of two towns in Newfoundland are speaking out about medical shortages that are posing critical problems for patients seeking urgent care. 

Eastern Health announced that emergency services at the Whitbourne Hospital will be closed from June 27 to July 1. Meanwhile, the Bonavista Peninsula Health Centre saw its emergency department closed for a time late last week.

There is at least one more: on Monday, Central Health said the hospital in New-Wes-Valley would be closed from Tuesday morning to Thursday evening. 

The cause of all three closures was cited as either current or temporary "human resource challenges."

Hilda Whelan, mayor of Whitbourne, told CBC News the town's two doctors are on an overlapping vacation, leading to the forced closure in her region.

"They're tired. They're worn out because they're the only two there [at the hospital]," said Whelan. "So right now it's closed for the week because for one week it overlaps there. And then, of course, when one comes back, the clinic will be open."

An ambulance sits outside the emergency department of the Bonavista Peninsula Health Centre. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Whelan expressed further concern over the shortage of ambulances. She explained residents will now be forced to travel to St. John's for emergency services thanks to the closure. Whitbourne only has three ambulances.

Whelan was also recently informed that the ambulance service in the region will be handed to a new operator.

"Last week, I got the message that the ambulance service is changing. Apparently, Eastern Health is taking over [Smith's] ambulances. I don't know what they're doing."

According to Whelan, under the new system, in an emergency, residents will contact Smith's Ambulance, who then will call 911, before Eastern Health dispatches an ambulance. Given that the community is already in a crisis situation, Whelan argued, now is "not the time to put a crimp in anything."

Whelan says she asked Wade Smith, owner of Smith's Ambulance, what would happen if the service did not comply with the new regulations. She says he told her his business would be shut down.

Whelan has asked the College of Physicians and Surgeons for an explanation but has yet to receive a response. 

"Something had to have happened for everybody to be out doctors all of a sudden," she said.

The mayor of Whitbourne, Hilda Whelan, says she has been told that changes are coming to the town's ambulance service. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

CBC News has asked Eastern Health for comment. 

Bonavista mayor: 'This is a problem for everybody in every way'

Bonavista Mayor John Norman can relate to Whelan's concerns.

Norman was told by the health authority that the staffing shortage issues in his region had come to a head last week, with the Bonavista Hospital's emergency department being forced to close for 24 hours, the first time something like that had happened in over 140 years.

Norman, who also serves as co-chairman of the regional health advisory committee, called the situation both frustrating and "very alarming on a lot of different levels."

"This is a problem for everybody in every way," he said.

Norman said this issue didn't happen overnight, adding the potential for such a crisis was debated as far back as seven years ago.

"Every few months for the past seven years, we have had mass resignations of three and four ER physicians at once. Still, there seem to be no solutions. Recruitment and retention of physicians has gotten much, much, much worse."

WATCH | John Norman tells Krissy Holmes that he would call a state of health emergency if he could: 

Bonavista mayor says town is facing health-care emergency with doctor shortages

9 months ago
Duration 5:32
John Norman tells Krissy Holmes he would enact a state of health emergency if he could

As the son of a former physician, Norman said, he understands the issues that doctors in the province are dealing with. 

"Physicians in Newfoundland in general, I know what it is," said Norman. "I know the lifestyle has changed, but I also know the realities of the overwork, the compensation packages that they are offered, and the challenges of operating, especially in rural areas with very little support. Why would we have doctors flooding into places like Bonavista and other smaller hospitals for lower pay, very little on-site support, and you're going to work more and get paid less?"

While the health authority did adjust the compensation package in an attempt to entice physicians to Bonavista Hospital, said Norman, it still doesn't match what's offered elsewhere. Norman and the municipality are now exploring their options.

"If I knew I could declare some legal form of state of emergency and call in the Red Cross or call in the Canadian Medical Army Corps, I would."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Nick Ward


Nick Ward is a journalist with the CBC bureau in St. John's. Email:

With files from Krissy Holmes, Zach Goudie, The St. John's Morning Show and On The Go


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