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B.C. hospital's ER closing for 14th time since start of September

South Okanagan General Hospital is seen in this image from the Interior Health website. (interiorhealth.ca) South Okanagan General Hospital is seen in this image from the Interior Health website. (interiorhealth.ca)
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For the 14th time since the beginning of September, B.C. health officials have announced South Okanagan General Hospital's emergency department is temporarily closing due to staffing issues.

In a public notice, Interior Health said emergency services at the hospital – which is located in Oliver but serves several nearby communities – will be unavailable from 4 p.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Saturday due to "limited physician availability."

Locals are advised to seek care at Penticton Regional Hospital during that time.

The health authority said anyone requiring treatment for potentially life-threatening conditions such as chest pains, difficulty breathing or severe bleeding should call 911 as always for transport to the nearest appropriate health-care facility accepting patients.

"All other inpatient services will continue as normal at South Okanagan General," the public notice reads.

Oliver Mayor Martin Johansen called the temporary closures recorded over recent months a major source of frustration in the community.

"It's challenging," he said. "We have a lot of unattached patients that live in the South Okanagan – in the neighbourhood of 3,500 to 4,000 people that don't have a doctor – so the hospital operates partially as a walk-in clinic also, even though it shouldn't."

There is hope that staffing troubles will be resolved soon, Johansen added, thanks to an alternative payment program for doctors at South Okanagan General that is close to being implemented.

The hospital currently operates on a "fee-for-service" model, meaning doctors are paid per patient, unlike at nearby Penticton Regional, where they receive a fee for their shift.

"Physicians are looking at Penticton and wondering, why am I not getting the same compensation they're getting?" Johansen said.

Local officials began discussions with the Ministry of Health around the staffing problems in September, and a contract has already been delivered to doctors for their review, the mayor said.

"There's no silver bullet for anything in health care," Johansen added. "One thing I can say is I really feel the optimism around the hospital with the physicians and staff. I think we've got something that's going to provide some stability moving forward."

There has already been a drop in the frequency of closures in recent weeks. Friday's emergency department shut-down will mark the first at South Okanagan General since Oct. 21. There were a total of five announced throughout the month of October and eight others in September.

A number of communities have experienced similar issues across the Interior Health region, including over the Thanksgiving long weekend, when three hospitals were closed, including the one in Oliver.

In Merritt, Mayor Michael Goetz has threatened to withhold health-care payments to the province over repeated closures of the emergency department at Nicola Valley Hospital, and urged other mayors to do the same. 

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