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Safety concerns, frustration amid multiple ER closures in Northern B.C. hospitals

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A series of emergency department closures in Northern B.C. is concerning and frustrating local patients, as the health authority insists it’s doing everything it can to bring in enough workers to keep the doors open.

Northern Health has been posting notifications on its Facebook pages for the regions with the comments disabled so that the public cannot ask questions or otherwise address officials.

The worst-hit facility is currently Prince Rupert Regional Hospital, where the emergency department has not been accepting patients regularly for more than a week. The health authority has been blaming a shortage of nurses and physicians for the “interruptions” it acknowledges in the posts.

“The timing of interruptions is subject to change, as we are continually working to ensure physician and nursing staff coverage for emergency department services,” the notice says on multiple days.

Opposition health critic Shirley Bond, whose riding is in Prince George, said one patient wasn’t taken to the closest hospital, an hour away in Terrace, but stayed outside the Prince Rupert facility.

“Literally a person stayed waiting in an ambulance outside the emergency room waiting for it to open and the outcomes were very challenging for that family and in there's still significant medical care required,” she said. 

Northern Haida Gwaii hospital in Masset was shut down with less than half an hour’s notice at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 8, and stayed closed for a full 24 hours.

Safety concerns with scant staff

Prince Rupert Mayor Herb Pond told CTV News he and council share the concerns about the intermittent ER closures and access to health care.

“We are communicating with the provincial government about this issue…one shared with other rural communities,” he wrote in an email, adding that a local government alliance will be holding a meeting to discuss hospital issues early next month. 

The BC Nurses’ Union has serious concerns about the working conditions for their members: frustrated patients who’ve waited hours or days for care taking out their frustrations on health-care workers closest at hand, while in a workplace understaffed for the volume of patients. 

“Currently the working conditions for many nurses…they believe it's unsafe and they cannot provide the care that their patients require (in Northern Health),” said BCNU president Adriane Gear. “The moral distress that is created really has an impact on retention of staff.”

Northern Health responds

Northern Health has been plagued by high staff turnover for several years and has increasingly relied on for-profit staffing agencies to keep the doors open amid a healthcare staffing crisis seen across the world in the wake of pandemic-impacted burnout.

Their interim vice president of clinical operations tells CTV News that while nursing shortages have had an overall impact, the emergency department closures in recent weeks have been due to a spring break shortage of locum doctors brought in to rural and remote communities.

“We continue to offer the safest care that we are able to, recognizing that we are seeing higher than normal volumes of patients presenting to the emergency department as well as the acuity of patients,” said Angela De Smit.

She added that next month, the province’s newly announced $30,000 bonuses will come into effect, which they believe will make a difference.

CTV News pointed out there have been many resignations and allegations of the health authority being a bad place to work, and asked whether they were addressing workplace culture and the reputation of Northern Health as an employer. 

“Most definitely, this is a priority for us,” De Smit insisted, acknowledging the significant temporary workforce they have in such a vast geographic area. “Our goal is to offer continuity of services across our 26 communities.”

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