By Marcia Love
The Southwest Integrated Healthcare Facility may be a beautiful new building intended to bring better services and high-end technology to the community, but those services can’t be offered if the staffing isn’t there. That’s the issue being brought forward by resident who were upset to find the new hospital had its emergency room doors closed overnight on Aug. 4.
No emergency outpatient services were available from 7 p.m. that night to 7 a.m. the following morning as no registered nurse was available.
This was the first time a disruption of services has occurred since the new hospital was opened on June 17, but emergency services being diverted due to staff unavailability aren’t a new issue in the community and residents want to see it addressed.
Residents have taken to social media to voice their frustration – some upset they’ve had to drive all the way to Medicine Hat when an emergency arises.
While staff are being commended for their efforts, many people question why the health region isn’t offering more full-time positions to ensure the closures don’t happen.
Last Tuesday, two nursing staff on day shift were unavailable as they had to leave town with the ambulance when patients were transferred to other facilities. The nurse who was to work the night shift was then called upon to cover during the day, leaving no nursing staff available to cover that night.
“We ended up utilizing three nursing staff for one shift just based on the care that was required that day,” explained Beth Vachon, CEO of Cypress Health Region.
Maple Creek currently has nine registered nurses – three full-time, three part-time and three casual – and eight licensed practical nurses – four full-time, one part-time and three casual.
As of last Friday, there were three job postings on Cypress Health Region’s website for nursing positions at the integrated healthcare facility. Two RNs and an LPN are being sought, however the positions are either temporary part-time or casual.
Vachon stated these positions are to fill in for staff on maternity leave, as well as those required to fill in for sick leave, vacation and personal matters.
“When you run a 24-hour operation, you need to ensure that you have people with some flexibility to be able to cover shifts that the regular full-time staff aren’t able to,” she said.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, staff in permanent positions must be guaranteed hours. Casual staff are brought in to cover when needed, but are not guaranteed hours and are only called upon when required.
“People always say, ‘Well, why don’t you just hire more nurses?'” Vachon said, adding this would mean guaranteeing the additional staff hours and working them into the rotation, which creates challenges with the collective bargaining agreement.
The last time emergency outpatient services were unavailable was in May when a physician had a personal emergency and other doctors were out of town for education and vacation reasons.
The health region reported it attempts to avoid disruptions in services, with the diversion of emergency care to other centres viewed as a last resort. There was a risk of disruption in late June, but the health region said it spent hours searching for a solution and was able to avoid a disruption.
Several residents have brought their concerns to MLA Wayne Elhard, who discussed the matter with Vachon last week. He was unavailable for comment.
The CEO stated recruiting and trying to ensure the staff is there to keep health care running smoothly is important to the health region.
“This is the absolute last resort,” she said of putting the facility on diversion. “We do everything in our power to avoid having to divert services, and many, many times it’s our staff who step up, take the extra hours, working overtime at the expense of their own family to make sure that the hospital stays open. But there does come a point in time where they cannot take an overtime shift on a regular basis. They might be away on their well-earned vacation.”
The new facility is staffed with the same number of nurses as the old hospital, but “certainly if the utilization continues and the community grows, then of course we look at that,” Vachon said. “But at this point just as we’re opening the doors we are operating with the same number of staff.”