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Veteran Amherst doctor fears for hospital's regional status

Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre - File
Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre - File - Darrell Cole

Amid shortage of doctors, specialists

AMHERST – A veteran Amherst physician is again sounding the alarm over the future of the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre.

The departure of several specialists and physicians has left Dr. Brian Ferguson wondering what the future of the hospital’s regional status is.

“As far as I’m concerned this hospital is in critical condition and on life support,” Ferguson told the Amherst News. “It can only last so long like this. The patient, the hospital, will either get better, you can shut the machine off and let it die or it will die in between. Unless something’s done it’s not going to recover and doctors will just leave.”

At stake, said Ferguson, is the hospital’s status as a regional hospital. There are so few doctors working in the emergency room that it’s becoming more difficult to maintain round-the-clock coverage – something it has managed to do since it achieved regional status in the mid-1990s.

In 2016, Ferguson, who has practiced medicine for 37 years – 32 in Amherst – sounded the alarm over the future of the hospital as a regional facility. At that time, officials with the Nova Scotia Health Authority said there were no plans to downgrade the hospital.

Ferguson said nothing has changed since then. He said six doctors are covering all the shifts in the emergency room plus trying to balance their own private practices. He said 12 doctors are needed to effectively cover the ER, with doctors working the ER one in six days.

Unfortunately, with a shortage of physicians available to cover the shifts doctors have to spend more time away from the practices to maintain the ER.

“It’s getting to the point where we’re spending more time away from our patients,” he said. “We have six doctors covering 10 shifts every five days.”

He said there are also shortages in surgery, although one surgeon is coming back early from maternity leave to make ensure surgical services aren’t threatened while there’s an ongoing shortage of anesthetists.

Ferguson said one internal medicine specialist has left for British Columbia while another is battling health issues leaving the hospital with one remaining specialist.

“We are using fill-in surgeons, fill-in anesthesiologists and fill-in general medicine specialists,” said Ferguson, who added that because of shortages he has worked 86 hours in emergency over the past two weeks. “Surgery, anesthesiology and internal medicine are surviving on doctors doing double or triple the duties and still it’s not enough.”

Recently, Ferguson said in a post on his practice’s Facebook page that the regional hospital is suffering and pointed the finger directly at the province saying that services are suffering either through “deliberate action or willful neglect.”

Kristen Lipscombe with the Nova Scotia Health Authority does not agree with Ferguson’s assessment.

“NSHA is aware of the concerns of the medical staff in Cumberland County and is working with physician leaders from Cumberland County as well as community leaders and the Department of Health and Wellness to provide support,” Lipscombe said in an emailed statement. “For example, the program for locum physicians to help with short and long-term vacancies at Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre has been enhanced, and both DHW and Dalhousie University recently announced two new family medicine residency seats for Amherst which will help recruit family doctors to the area.”

Lipscombe said physician recruitment is a priority and there have been successes, despite challenges both in Cumberland County and across the province.

“Local community groups and individuals, including physicians, support our NSHA recruitment coordinators in communities across the province,” she said. “In this case, there is a local physician recruitment committee that includes the clinical lead for Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre, the local MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, municipal leaders and physicians.”

Lipscombe said the provincial health authority supports and thanks the physicians and staff providing “great care” to Nova Scotian. She said the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre “is and will continue to be an important part of the health system and we want Nova Scotians to be confident they will have access to the care they need.”

The NSHA spokesperson said the organization is always looking at how it can best deliver programs and services across the province.

“As we continue to review these services, we will work hard to ensure our investments are meeting the needs of Nova Scotians now and into the future. In all of our service planning, we are looking at the populations and needs of the communities we serve and aligning our resources to meet those needs integrated with the larger health system,” she said.

darrell.cole@amherstnews.ca

Twitter: @ADNdarrell

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