Emergency rooms in a pair of small communities on northern Vancouver Island will remain closed overnight for the foreseeable future.
Minister of Heath Adrian Dix and Island Health President and Chief Executive Officer Kathy McNeil promised that emergency rooms in each of Port Hardy and Alert Bay would re-open as soon as possible without giving a specific date. But comments from Dix suggest that these closures could last months, not weeks.
In the interim, the emergency room in nearby Port McNeill will be open round-the-clock. Island Health will also establish daily shuttle services between Port Hardy and Port McNeill hospitals, as well as daily shuttles to Campbell River and the Comox Valley, two or three hours further south.
The emergency room of Port Hardy Hospital will be open from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. while the emergency room at Cormorant Island Health Centre in Alert Bay will open from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m.
Staffing shortages have closed the emergency room at Port Hardy Hospital overnight since Dec. 15 minus three days. Cormorant Island Health Centre’s emergency room was completely closed between Dec. 15 and Jan. 1.
Island Health will also add new mental-health and substance-use services to improve supportive and reduce emergency room admissions. Similarly, Island Health will establish additional long-term care beds in Port Hardy to improve patient flow. Other announced measures include additional financial incentives for staff recruitment, retention and travel.
Dix acknowledged the difficulties facing those hospitals, but stressed that the province continues to believe in them in pointing to future plans.
For now, the focus lies on levelling up with the public about when services will be available in which communities as part of a broader, more comprehensive plan to improve health-care staffing.
Dix said it is not just a matter of adding additional doctors, but also other staff to ensure service not some of the time, but all of the time.
The public including staff wanted certainty about which services are available when under which circumstances with a future plan for more staff in place, he added.
He also addressed calls to allow more physician assistants to enter the health-care system. Dr. Alex Nataros of Port Hardy has been among the most vocal proponents of physician assistants in warning of a looming doctor shortage in his community with two of four doctors set to leave in June.
Dix said the province has not ruled out a reform of the current system to allow physician assistants to play more prominent roles, adding that his ministry will further discuss the issue with the College of Physicians and Surgeons. But he also tried to temper expectations. He said the province is currently pursuing 70 different actions to get more workers into the health care system, which he admitted is facing challenges, while performing unprecedented numbers of surgeries and diagnostics.
He also addressed the recent hiring of Dr. Penny Ballem, a former deputy health minister, as special adviser on health care to Premier David Eby. He praised Ballem’s credentials as a health-care administrator, adding that he looks forward to working with her.
“I encourage it, I support it, I love it, ” he said.