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2 Vancouver Island area ERs to close overnight for foreseeable future

Two emergency rooms in B.C. will be closed overnight for the foreseeable future until the province can recruit enough staff to return to 24-hour operations. 

On Friday, Health Minister Adrian Dix said Port Hardy Hospital’s emergency room will be open from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. The emergency room at the Cormorant Island Health Centre in Alert Bay will be available from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. 

“We’re gonna get back to full time,” Dix said. “It’s not going to be weeks. It’s going to be longer than that.”

The hospital in nearby Port McNeil will remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Dix said by announcing the operational change, patients and families will know where and when emergency services are available.

“People need to know when services are available and when they are not,” Island Health president and CEO Kathy MacNeil said.

This comes after a Port Hardy physician raised the alarm, saying two of his colleagues plan to resign later this year, leaving him the only emergency physician for the community. 

According to Statistics Canada data from 2021, Port Hardy has a population of about 3,400. The number of people living there actually fell from 2016, when there were more than 3,600. 

Dr. Alex Nataros has been calling on the province to approve the use of physician assistants. 

“We’re trying to do the best we can with limited hands,” Nataros said. “We need more hands. We need more medical, physician capacity.”

He said he’s found a physician assistant who could start working with him in June, but needs the Ministry of Health to approve it.

On Friday morning, the B.C. Liberals echoed Nataros’s plea. 

“B.C.’s health-care system is in a deteriorating state of crisis, and David Eby should be considering any solutions that would help alleviate pressure on the collapsing system and support our overworked health care workers,” B.C. Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon said in a statement.

“With our health-care system collapsing, it’s time to let physician assistants work in B.C.”

Physician assistants work under a doctor to help with things like conducting patient interviews and exams, assisting in surgery and writing prescriptions under the name of the doctor. Unlike nurse practitioners, physician assistants do not practise independently — all the work they do is in the name of the doctor they work for. 

A close-up shot of a man in glasses in mid speech with a B.C. flag in the blurred out background.
Adrian Dix, B.C.’s minister of health, during a briefing in Vancouver on Jan. 4, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Dix said that the province is taking other measures to alleviate the problem on Vancouver Island, including recruitment and retention of staff. 

He said while physician assistants were not part of the announcement on Friday, the Ministry of Health and College of Physicians and Surgeons will look at it. 

“It’s an idea we’re working through,” Dix said.

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Mayor ‘not happy’

Port Hardy Mayor Pat Corbett-Labatt said she doesn’t think residents will be pleased with the closure.

“I’m not happy about it. But the reality is it’s going to take a while to recruit the doctors and nurses that we need to have up here to be able to have a hospital running 24/7.”

However, she said she’s hopeful the hospital in Port McNeill will be able to handle demand coming from her community and others that are left without emergency medical care overnight.

“I’m really hopeful that the Ministry of Health is … going to help the doctors and the nurses that are going to be taking the brunt of the ER in the evening.”

$30M plan

The province said it will spend $30 million to improve health care on northern Vancouver Island.

It says it’s for things like accommodation for staff willing to travel for work and transportation for patients between hospitals. 

Additionally, the province said it will bring in more protection service officers to improve safety at North Island hospitals. 

Island Health said it will establish new 24-hour mental health and substance use services, including sobering beds. 

Long-term care beds are also being added in Port Hardy, the province says. 

The province and Island Health also announced expanded CT diagnostic services and upgrades to the Port Hardy and Port McNeill hospitals, though what those actual upgrades look like was not mentioned. 

“We’re going to improve services in the long run,” Dix said.

“It’s not all easy all the time. These are difficult issues to address.”

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