Twelve emergency departments run by Eastern Health and Central Health have collectively been closed or placed on diversion for more than five months so far in 2022, according to more than six months of alerts from the two regional health authorities.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s four regional health authorities don’t regularly release emergency room closure statistics, but they do usually publish news releases when emergency services at a health centre are temporarily closed or placed on diversion.
Information from those news releases, compiled by CBC News, shows a — in some cases, chronic — pattern of emergency room closures in eastern and central Newfoundland.
The emergency departments in Whitbourne, New-Wes-Valley, Harbour Breton, Buchans, Springdale and Baie Verte have all been closed for two weeks or more so far this year, with some scheduled to be closed this week.
Beginning on Jan. 7, the emergency room in Whitbourne was closed for nearly a month because of staffing challenges related to COVID-19. It reopened on Feb. 4, but closed three times in June. The emergency room is currently scheduled to be closed until July 18.
Emergency services at Dr. Y.K. Jeon Kittiwake Health Centre in New-Wes-Valley have been closed or put on diversion for about 29 days so far in 2022, according to Central Health.
New-Wes-Valley deputy mayor Michael Tiller, who has also been a paramedic for 20 years, told CBC News he isn’t surprised to hear the number.
“Diversion is something that nobody expected to happen. You always kind of figured you were going to have a supply of doctors,” he said. “I don’t know why this is happening. But I do know that somebody has to come on board quickly and fix it.”
Tiller said, so far, there haven’t been any serious incidents while emergency services were closed or on diversion.
“I’m afraid what’s going to happen when the luck runs out,” Tiller said.
Winning the lottery
According to news releases from Central Health, emergency services in Baie Verte have been closed or placed on diversion for about 16 days so far this year. However, the town’s mayor told CBC News that number doesn’t reflect what residents have experienced for the past two years.
Rex Bowers said residents are transported to Grand Falls-Windsor almost daily because of staffing shortages at the hospital. He said sometimes there’s no ambulance available at all, and residents experiencing a medical emergency have to make the two-hour drive to Grand Falls-Windsor themselves.
“It makes me angry that they’re taking the life of people around here and … pretty much playing Russian roulette with the people that [live] in the area,” he said.
Bowers said he worked in the hospital for more than 30 years, and he’s watched services decline over time.
“It’s gone from a full-fledged hospital to ‘good luck if you can get in to see a doctor,'” he said. “You got a better chance, sometimes, of winning the lottery.”
A national problem
Newfoundland and Labrador isn’t the only province with problems plaguing its emergency rooms, with reports of overcrowding and understaffing in provinces like Ontario and Saskatchewan.
Dr. Michael Howlett, president of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, also wasn’t surprised by the closures and diversions in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“They just provide evidence for what we’ve been seeing happen and getting worse over the past 30 years, frankly,” he said. “It’s basically that all the hospitals in Canada are experiencing the same thing.”
In some cases, emergency departments have been augmenting physician shortages with virtual emergency care. In addition to closures and diversions, emergency departments have used virtual care for just over 50 days so far in 2022.
Howlett said virtual care helps with understaffing, but isn’t a replacement for in-person care for people with higher acuity illnesses, specialized care or resuscitation.
Earlier this week, Canadian premiers met in Victoria, B.C. as part of an effort to convince the federal government to increase its share of health-care funding from 25 to 35 per cent.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey, who was at the meeting, called on the federal government to help deal with problems plaguing health-care systems across Canada.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to reimagine the health-care system. And the fact that they’re not here is hurtful to Canadians,” said Furey.
Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador