Overworked and under-resourced NorthIsle doctors and nurses are burning out. So are the x-ray and lab techs, the receptionists, the folks who make sure our records are up to date, and the housekeeping staff. And everyone in between. Anyone who works in a hospital has been through the ringer these past few years.
And patient care is suffering.
For example, since last spring Port Hardy and Port McNeill hospitals have been struck by doctor and nurse shortages, forcing the closure of their emergency departments on alternating weekends.
The growing gaps in critical care have life-threatening consequences. In the latest serious incident, on November 25th, a patient complaining of chest pains collapsed on the floor outside the closed Port Hardy Hospital ER department. Staff called BC Ambulance Service (BCAS), which said an ambulance from Port McNeill, 43 km away, would have to be sent.
While waiting, a nurse helped the patient onto a gurney and took their vitals. When no ambulance arrived, the staff called BCAS again. They were told that because medical staff had intervened, it was assumed that the hospital had assumed control of the situation. Extra steps would now have to be taken to make a hospital-to-hospital transfer.
Great. Island Health keeps telling folks to call 911 if their local emergency room is closed. But then 911 doesn’t have what it needs to manage all these calls? And not enough paramedics to help people?
This incident followed two previous cases where there was absolute confusion about how to care for a patient in a life-threatening situation. Not because of individual incompetence but because overworked healthcare workers on the NorthIsle are being left to grapple with an extreme staffing shortage.
In a Nov. 27 email sent to Island Health and obtained by the Times Colonist, Dr. Nicole Bennett-Boutilier, medical director for Mt. Waddington-Strathcona, said the reality of dealing with bare-bones staff and ER closures is taking a toll.
“These efforts are coming at a great cost to an already grossly extended healthcare team,” Bennett-Boutilier wrote.
Doctors have been pushing to centralize emergency services at a single hospital on the NorthIsle to serve Port Hardy, Port McNeill and Port Alice instead of having three hospitals subject to ER department closures.
Bennett-Boutilier wrote in the message that until emergency services are consolidated on the NorthIsle, we will “continue to place our patients and staff at risk.”
This might sound like a good idea, but it’s also worth remembering what happened when it snowed at the end of November. Semi-trucks got stuck on the hill leaving Port Alice, which made it super hard to get around them and out of town. How would sick people and healthcare workers get to a hospital in Port McNeill in a snowstorm? Do we just pause all heart attacks in bad weather?
So, what is the health authority doing about all this?
In response to a Times Colonist request for comment about the Nov. 25th incident, Island Health said it will review the incident “to fully understand what happened and to inform future process improvements.”
That’s not good enough – not even close.
Island Health has known about a looming healthcare crisis on the NorthIsle since at least early last spring. Unfortunately, it’s been like watching a car crash in slow motion.
All across BC, the crumbling healthcare system is jumping from crisis to crisis. But the situation on the NorthIsle is particularly dire.
In Port McNeill, two recent doctor hires have improved the situation, but Port Hardy’s struggles continue. Their community hospital has three doctors; it needs at least five. In addition, Port Hardy’s ER department was closed 29 nights in October, which doesn’t include 24-hour weekend closures.
That’s why Island Health must act quickly and follow the advice of the frontline care workers in the trenches. If Island Health doesn’t act fast, doctors and nurses will burn out. So will the rest of the crew. In a hospital, you need everyone on board. Surgery can’t happen if the folks who clean the surgical ward are out sick.
If something isn’t done, recruiting more healthcare staff will get even more difficult.
Given a choice, what doctor or nurse would willingly sign up to work in a hospital where it’s impossible to provide patients with the care they need and deserve?
And let’s face it, the current situation isn’t sustainable, and patients will die because the government failed to fix a broken system.