Haliburton Highlands Health Services faces temporary ER closures

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Despite previously committing to keeping the Haliburton and Minden emergency departments open throughout the summer, Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS) is prepping the community on what to do in the event of a sudden, temporary closure.

 The organization has launched a new ‘StopCheck-Go’ campaign urging Highlanders to gauge whether their illness or injury warrants emergency care, and check if their closest emergency room is open before driving there. The announcement comes in the midst of ongoing staff shortages, which have worsened in recent weeks. 

“Although HHHS has worked extremely hard to ensure we have adequate staffing for the start of a busy summer, we continue to be in a precarious position with both nursing and physician shifts,” said HHHS spokesperson Lauren Hunter. “We are working day and night to cover every shift… However, if a shift remains unfilled and there is no back-up coverage available, HHHS would be forced to temporarily close the emergency department until the next full shift.” 

HHHS president and CEO Carolyn Plummer had previously stated the community would be given at least 24 hours’ notice before any closure, but Hunter indicated that may not be possible under present circumstances.

 Currently, agency staff are covering around 54 per cent of all nursing shifts at HHHS’ emergency departments. 

Physician support is also being provided through the Health Force Ontario Emergency Department Locum Program. 

“Part of our challenge is that critical staffing shortages are happening across the province, which means many facilities are relying on the same agency nurses and physicians to fill shifts,” Hunter said. 

HHHS needs to hire between eight and 12 full-time nurses to support its emergency departments without assistance from agency staff. 

Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP Laurie Scott said she is continuing to work closely with HHHS to find solutions to local health care staffing shortages.

 “Since March 2020, our government has implemented emergency programs that have added over 8,600 health care professionals to the health care system.

 We are also launching the Learn and Stay program for post-secondary students who enrol in priority programs such as nursing, adding hundreds of positions to medical schools over the next five years, and making it easier for foreign-trained medical professionals to overcome employment barriers,” Scott said. 

Highlands resident Trevor Chaulk said the staffing shortages are having a major impact on patient care, with increased wait times leaving many frustrated. 

Visiting the Haliburton emergency department June 30 with his 15-year-old son, who had badly cut his hand while at work, Chaulk said the pair were left to wait for five hours before being seen by a doctor. “We got there around eight o’clock in the evening, and we weren’t called into the back room until after 1 a.m. It was fairly busy, but I’ve lived in this community for 15 years and have never had to wait that long before,” Chaulk said. 

“Usually, you’re in and out in two hours, maybe three hours tops.” 

Chaulk’s son was eventually treated and the pair left at around 2:30 a.m. “I just feel bad for the nurses and the doctors, because they’re run off their feet,” Chaulk said. Hunter said ER wait times fluctuate significantly based on patient volumes, especially in light of recent staff shortages

Based on information from April to June, the average ER wait time at HHHS is two hours and 20 minutes. 

Hunter said the length of time spent in the ER from start to finish can vary from one to seven hours depending on the severity of the issue. To avoid potentially lengthy waits, Hunter said HHHS is encouraging injured patients to stop and consider whether self-care can address their concerns.

 If emergency care is needed, patients should check the status of their nearest emergency room by calling 705-457-1392 ext. 2555, or by visiting hhhs.ca. In the event of a local emergency department closure, Hunter said paramedics will transport patients to the nearest emergency care centre, which could be Lindsay, Bracebridge, Bancroft, Peterborough or Huntsville. 

Chaulk feels any decision to close the emergency departments in Haliburton or Minden could bring disastrous consequences.

“All this is going to do is create confusion and chaos, and possibly increase the risk of something bad happening… When someone is in need of emergency assistance, the last thing they’re going to think to do is check to see if their local hospital is open,” Chaulk said. “A lot of people in our community live remotely and so could be driving a fair way to get to the hospital, only to find out it’s closed… In medical care, sometimes every minute counts.” 

Hunter said if anyone is facing an emergency situation, they should call 911 and seek immediate assistance. (with files from Sam Gillett).