'Staffing challenges' force Yellowknife's Stanton Hospital to suspend birth services

Almost everyone planning to give birth at Stanton Territorial Hospital between Dec. 10 and Feb. 21 will instead be transferred to Edmonton because of "staffing challenges, particularly nursing," said the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority.

Most people giving birth between Dec. 10 and Feb. 21 will be transferred to Edmonton

A hospital building against a blue sky.
All individuals giving planned births between Dec. 10 and Feb. 21 at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife will be transferred to Edmonton. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Almost everyone planning to give birth at Yellowknife's Stanton Territorial Hospital between Dec. 10 and Feb. 21 will instead be transferred to Edmonton.

In a Monday news release, the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority said the move is temporary but necessary because of a shortage of staff, especially nurses.

The health authority said it started notifying individuals who will be impacted by the decision Monday morning. 

The hospital will still perform emergency deliveries during this time.

"These are difficult circumstances and decisions and we empathize with everyone whose birth plan is now changing, however we want people who are impacted to know that at the core of this decision is the safety of them and their newborn child," said Kimberly Riles, CEO of the health authority.

The impact will be felt differently depending where people live, the statement said.

For example, scheduled births in Inuvik, midwifery supports in Fort Smith, and services in Hay River won't be impacted.

However, individuals from N.W.T. communities outside Yellowknife who would normally travel to Yellowknife to give birth will be transferred to Edmonton. The same applies to individuals from western Nunavut, who normally give birth in Yellowknife.

The health authority said that people who are pregnant will generally travel before or during their 37th week of pregnancy, alongside a non-medical escort. 

"This means that individuals will spend between 3-5 weeks on average in the location where they will give birth," the statement reads.

The N.W.T. health authority added it would work with all those who are impacted to determine their travel needs and what they may qualify for.

The statement said "regular medical travel supports will be provided to all impacted individuals" and that some people may have insurance that provides other benefits.

Efforts to recruit and train

The health authority said it's continuing its efforts to recruit and retain nurses, as well as training from within for specialized nursing roles like obstetrics. 

It said it will reassess the need to suspend the service and will reopen it sooner if possible. It added it may also delay the reopening of the service if staffing doesn't improve.

"There is a national nursing shortage and high demand across all jurisdictions for nurses; this is more acute in areas where specialized skills and training are required like obstetrics," the statement said.

The health authority said it has transferred birthing services once before, in 2002, due to staffing shortages.

In 2019-2020, 581 babies were born in the N.W.T. according to the health authority. Of those, 540 were born at Stanton Territorial Hospital.