Northern ER closure latest sign of critical staff shortage
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An emergency room in northern Manitoba will stay closed indefinitely as chronic staff shortages disrupt health-care services in the region.
The ER closure at Leaf Rapids Health Centre was scheduled to last six days when it began July 13.
After extending the shutdown to Aug. 31, the Northern Regional Health Authority announced last week the department would be closed for an “indeterminate” period.
“We currently have critical staffing issues in Leaf Rapids and Lynn Lake,” a spokeswoman wrote in an email. “These communities do not have enough staff to keep all services running continuously.”
The Leaf Rapids hospital has been “totally” staffed by agency nurses for many years, she said.
The facility closed for about four weeks in December and January because it didn’t have enough staff.
While the ER is closed, residents of the remote community, about 1,000 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, have been advised to call 911 in a medical emergency.
The nearest emergency department, in Lynn Lake, is roughly an 80-minute drive.
Dawn Halcrow, who owns and operates Churchill River Lodge & Outfitters, just north of Leaf Rapids, is “very concerned” for residents and her clients.
Her parents had to move to Thompson to be closer to health-care services.
“The citizens and the community deserve better,” said Halcrow.
Leaf Rapids lost 40 per cent of its population between the two most recent federal censuses.
It had 351 residents as of the 2021 census, down from 582 in 2016.
Primary care and public health services are still provided at the town’s hospital between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, not counting holidays. Services are not offered on weekends.
At the Lynn Lake hospital, in-patient beds have been closed due to a shortage of workers.
“We cannot guarantee reopening dates for the emergency department in Leaf Rapids or the in-patient beds in Lynn Lake as there are too many factors out of our control for us to provide guarantees,” the health authority spokeswoman wrote. “We have experienced far too many days when we were one sick call or a no-show away from resulting in an unsafe situation.
“The Northern Health Region has spent countless hours problem-solving and begging staff and external agencies to help us fill shifts.”
To find staff, the authority is working with recruiters and agencies, attending job fairs, hosting student trips and offering practicum placements.
“We have had an active offer with the University College of the North that we would employ every grad from a number of their health-care programs,” the NRHA spokeswoman wrote.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew called on the Progressive Conservative government to engage more with northerners.
Kinew said trained nurses living in northern communities “could be brought back” if the Tories are “willing to engage around working conditions.”
Shortages are disrupting health-care services across Manitoba, he pointed out.
“As is often the case, you see northern folk getting hit really hard,” said Kinew.
Niki Ashton, the region’s NDP member of Parliament, said the situations in Leaf Rapids and Lynn Lake are “unacceptable.”
Ashton said Manitoba must train more nurses in the north to boost recruiting and retention efforts.
Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said the vacancy rate for nursing positions in the north is about 30 per cent.
“I think this is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” she said, noting the region has always had challenges due to its remoteness. “We are ever more dependant on private agencies to provide staff.”
Manitoba’s health authorities spent just under $41 million on agency nursing staff between April 2021 and March 2022.
Jackson said there has been a “bleed” of nurses leaving for the private sector.
Doctors Manitoba and the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce are holding a summit in Portage la Prairie on Sept. 21 to assess rural and northern physician shortages.
They hope to come up with potential solutions to bolster recruitment and retention.
Dr. Candace Bradshaw, president of Doctors Manitoba, said shortages in rural and northern areas result in frequent closures and unplanned disruptions, which put more stress on Winnipeg’s hospitals.
“Manitobans are being affected by ER closures, difficulty finding a family doctor, and long waits to get a diagnostic test or surgery,” Bradshaw said in a statement. “The current state of care in rural and northern Manitoba is neither sufficient, nor sustainable.”
A spokesman for the province said Manitoba is spending $4.3 million for 37 additional nurse training seats at the University College of the North. “Health human resource challenges are being felt across the country and are not unique to Manitoba,” the spokesman wrote in an email. “This is especially true in traditionally difficult to fill areas of the province.”
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.