Doctors raise alarm over rural ER closures
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The number of anticipated emergency room closures in rural Manitoba this summer is unlike anything Dr. David Cram has seen in his career.
“I’ve been at this a long, long time, and I’ve never been as concerned as I am now about the stability of our hospitals and our emergency rooms to provide the care to our patients,” said the Souris-based physician, who has been practising as a proud “country doc” for 36 years.
Closures and temporary suspensions of ER service are expected to happen in about 60 per cent of the 68 hospitals in northern and rural Manitoba, according to information gathered by Doctors Manitoba.
Cram, along with Neepawa physician Dr. Nichelle Desilets, publicly shared his concerns during a virtual news conference Friday with Doctors Manitoba president Dr. Candace Bradshaw.
The organization, which represents more than 4,000 physicians in the province, launched a new website (ruralcare.ca) that breaks down anticipated ER closures by region and is designed to inform Manitobans about what to do if their local hospital is closed in an emergency. (People should call 911 and know where their closest and second-closest ERs are located.)
Doctors Manitoba plans to update the website weekly throughout the summer. The agency provided statistics that show 40 per cent of rural ERs are expected to stay open 24-7, but 34 per cent will only be able to operate on reduced hours or temporary closures, while 26 per cent have been closed more than a year and won’t reopen this summer.
Although he loves his work, Cram said the situation is not sustainable. Chronic staffing shortages have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic and ERs are in jeopardy anytime a doctor goes on vacation, gets sick, or moves away. In Souris, the ER will only be open two days a week because of another doctor’s planned relocation, he said.
“We’re just a nursing shift or a doctor shift away for one or two hospitals (ERs) to close, and it certainly has a domino effect, so it is just not sustainable,” said Cram, who is the Manitoba representative on the Canadian Medical Association board of directors.
Doctors worry about their regular patients anytime there’s a closure or disruption in service, said Desilets, who has been practising in Neepawa since 2015 and has a young family.
“We feel it really deeply because we’re really ingrained in our communities,” she said.
Rural doctors will be working over the summer to establish best practices for a long-term recruitment and retention plan, said Desilets, who also serves on the Assiniboine District Medical Society.
She has a supportive team at work and at home, Desilets said, “but as Dr. Cram said, everything’s spread pretty thin. And when I hear a veteran like Dr. Cram say that he’s never seen it like this before, as a newer-to-practice physician, that has me concerned.”
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.