Rural hospital shutdowns continue into fall
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Summer shutdowns at some rural Manitoba hospitals have quietly extended into fall, and the uncertainty about reopening is frustrating residents.
In the southwestern corner of the province, a planned July-August closure of the Melita Health Centre is scheduled to continue at least into October. No reopening date has been set, and a return to normal operations isn’t promised.
“It is very frustrating and scary that you don’t know whether you’re going to get any care,” says 84-year-old Harvey Jellis. Jellis had a scare last month when he fell off a ladder on his farm south of Melita and broke his leg just below the hip. The local ER closure meant he had to be taken by ambulance to Virden, and spent a day there before he was transferred to Brandon to undergo surgery.
“If the Melita hospital had been open, I would’ve been evaluated there, and I would’ve been taken straight to Brandon, and I would’ve had the operation a day sooner. I would’ve been at least a day sooner on the road to recovery.”
The health centre was one of several hospitals that experienced repeated temporary closures and reduced hours before it closed at the end of June. The hospital was operating with only one full-time doctor, and regional health authorities decided to re-assign Melita’s nurses to neighbouring Deloraine and Reston so those communities could keep their personal-care homes staffed.
Asked if and when Melita’s ER will reopen, a spokesperson for the Prairie Mountain Health region didn’t commit.
“Prairie Mountain Health continues to work towards the planned reopening of the Melita Health Centre including a return to admissions to the acute and transitional care unit,” a spokesperson stated.
“Meetings with municipal leaders are being held and communication to the community will be forthcoming once details have been finalized.”
The lack of clarity on reopening plans, including what kind of health care will be available in Melita from now on, and silence from elected leaders and health officials, is disrespectful to the community, said Daryl VanCauwenberghe, who has lived in Melita for 25 years.
“There are so many questions. In my opinion, it is the not knowing about the immediate status of our health services that makes this very frustrating.”
Melita Mayor Bill Holden couldn’t be reached for comment.
Summer closures or reduced hours are extending into fall for at least eight rural Manitoba hospitals, including Melita’s, according to Doctors Manitoba. The organization represents more than 4,000 physicians and has been tracking ER closures and service suspensions. The extended closures include Grandview, Souris, Treherne, Leaf Rapids, Lynn Lake, Notre Dame and Pine Falls. Many other rural health centres have limited hours because of staff shortages.
Neepawa-based physician Dr. Nichelle Desilets says residents rightfully want answers about summer hospital closures being extended for an indeterminate time.
“I think it’s important that we don’t let this fly under the radar. We’re not seeing all of those reopenings as many people anticipated,” Desilets said. “So I think people are right to be concerned.”
There’s currently no indication of a fall plan to return to previous health-care service levels in many rural communities. But the status quo wasn’t enough in hospitals that were already shutting down frequently because of a shortage of doctors, nurses, technicians and other medical staff. Speculation about rural hospital restructuring was ongoing before the pandemic began, Desilets noted, but she said thorough consultation that includes front-line staff is crucial to get to long-term solutions.
In the meantime, there is plenty of “low-hanging fruit,” Desilets says: short-term ways to improve working conditions, including reducing requirements for redundant paperwork, placing limits on repeated mandatory overtime, and including staff in operational decisions.
A summit on rural health care hosted by Doctors Manitoba and the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce is set to take place Sept. 21 in Portage la Prairie. It aims to tackle shortages of rural physicians and share potential solutions with government.
The current reality in many communities involves long ambulance waits, unreliable cell service, and some desperate situations that ultimately contribute to the workload for medical staff in Brandon, says Lorna Canada-Vanegas Mesa, the provincial NDP candidate for Turtle Mountain district.
Over the Labour Day long weekend, the southwestern corner of the province was without local emergency medical care. ERs were closed in Melita, Boissevain, Souris and Deloraine.
“I’ve heard some really horrifying stories from people about just putting their loved one in a vehicle and doing whatever they’ve gotta do to drive to get them to a hospital. But the problem with that is that they’re going from one hospital to another trying to find one that’s open,” says Canada-Vanegas Mesa.
“Where are you going to end up — that’s the biggest concern most people have — if something really does go wrong?”
The lack of communication, she says, is a major concern.
“For the people in the community, a lot of the stress is being driven by the fact no one’s talking to them and they don’t know what’s happening.”
At home in Boissevain, Jellis is now recovering and is grateful for the care he received. But he’s worried about the decline he’s seen in rural health-care services.
“I’m extremely unhappy with the situation as it is in Melita and quite a few other rural hospitals,” he says.
“It puts quite a large area in a really bad situation for health care.”
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.
Updated on Sunday, September 11, 2022 9:23 AM CDT: adds image
Updated on Monday, September 12, 2022 8:12 AM CDT: Clarifies that summer closures or reduced hours are extending into fall