PUGWASH, N.S. – Dave Farley remembers a time going to the emergency room didn’t involve a guessing game.
Farley recently took his wife to the ER at North Cumberland Memorial Hospital in Pugwash because he was afraid she was developing a chest infection. Upon their arrival, they discovered the ER was closed – a frequent occurrence at Cumberland County’s three collaborative emergency centres.
They went to the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre in Amherst, where they waited more than eight hours to see a doctor. It was abnormally busy because it was the only ER open in the county.
“We accept her condition was not life-threatening and that more serious cases needed attention, but there was only one doctor and he was worked off his feet,” said Farley. “It was beyond frustrating.”
Farley, who was a member of the former Cumberland Health Authority and Pugwash village commission, said it’s not only frustrating to patients, but also to the doctors who don’t see any relief coming over the horizon.
He’s afraid the province will repeat the Cape Breton experience and shut one or more ERs in Cumberland County.
“It’s sort of like having the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, you never know when it’s going to drop,” he said. “I’m really afraid for the future, problem is we won’t know they’re going to do it until they announce it.”
Farley said people need to stand up to government’s handling of health care, but pointed out many are unaware of the crisis until they need to go to an emergency room.
Nova Scotia’s health and wellness minister says there are no plans to take emergency rooms away from any of Cumberland County’s hospitals.
“At this point in time I wouldn’t speculate on what changes, if any, will be made in certain areas of the province,” Randy Delorey told the Amherst News. “Part of the health authority’s mandate is to review and assess and come forward with proposals for the delivery of health care within the province.”
Delorey said the health authority does not close an emergency room lightly. Efforts are made to recruit and back-fill shifts when staff are on vacation or request time off.
“It’s only when they are unable to fill those that they make the decision to close an emergency department,” he said, adding there are no simple solutions to ER closures in Cumberland County. “As a government, we recognize some of the volume in our emergency rooms are primary health care related and that’s why we’re investing in primary care services across the province and we’ve changed the compensation model to encourage physicians to support primary care and take on unattached patients and have expanded our investment in nurse practitioners and collaborative care practices.”
David Petrie, a senior medical director of the emergency program of care for the Nova Scotia Health Authority, recently told the Canadian Press the province may need fewer emergency rooms that it has.
He admitted the changes won’t be popular, but said the discussion is necessary as the health system grapples with doctor shortages and changes to the health care system.
Delorey said government hasn’t gotten that far, but is willing to work with its partner organizations, including the NSHA and its physicians, to provide the best health care and services to Nova Scotians.
In Cape Breton, Delorey said there’s a shifting of the way in how health care is delivered in the Sydney area that’s forward-looking by investing in new health technologies in New Waterford and North Sydney.
“These are investments that are being done on an assessment that says going forward this is what these communities need,” he said. “That’s what’s being looked at.”
Delorey said government is continuing to work on the situation and is focused on ensuring people have access to primary care through collaborative care centres across the region to relieve some of the pressures on emergency departments.
At the same time, he said, work is continuing to recruit more physicians and specialists.
Cumberland County’s three rural emergency departments in Pugwash, Parrsboro and Springhill have been closed frequently for several years due to a shortage of physicians to staff the collaborative emergency centres.
There have also been overnight closures at All Saints CEC in Springhill due to a nursing shortage.
Cumberland South MLA Tory Rushton said Monday the minister and Premier Stephen McNeil have a lot of explaining to do.
Two of the frequently closed ERs – Springhill and Parrsboro – are in his riding.
Rushton said the county’s rural ERs will be closed 204 hours over the next week. He said it’s placing a lot of strain on the regional hospital in Amherst.
“I am receiving calls from people every day because they don’t know which hospitals are open and when, and frankly the lack of clarity is astounding,” Rushton said, adding the government is playing with people’s lives. “We can’t expect people to drive for hours to the closest open hospital in an emergency.”