The Chief Medical Officer for Southern Health says he is hopeful that they will be able to expand their hours in January at the Emergency Department in Ste. Anne.
The regional health authority announced on Tuesday that beginning this Friday, the Emergency Department at Ste. Anne Hospital will only be open from 8 am to 4 pm, seven days per week. That Emergency Department is currently open from 8 am to 8 pm. And they are suspending obstetrical services at the hospital for approximately six months.
Dr. Fortier says these changes are very much related to the ongoing health human resource challenges, in particular the physician shortage. He notes the reduced hours in the Emergency Department will be for the month of December and they will re-evaluate in January to see if they can possibly return to being open 12 hours per day.
With regard to the pause in offering obstetrical services, Dr. Fortier says they are exploring the possibility of offering these services through midwifery, though they are in the early stages of examining that potential.
According to Dr. Fortier, the number of births at Ste. Anne Hospital has varied considerably throughout the years. He notes at its peak when that hospital had a large group of physicians, they would deliver nearly 125 babies per year, which he says is pretty good for a mid-sized community hospital like Ste. Anne. However, in recent years, due to human resource challenges, the number of births has been cut in half to maybe 50 or 60 annually.
"And with further cuts in the health human resources that we have there, we are anticipating that we can't even manage that," he admits.
Dr. Fortier says it is difficult to know where the majority of mothers will now choose to deliver their baby. He notes in some cases, these may be residents who actually live closer to Winnipeg and will choose a hospital there. However, he says they anticipate that a good portion of births will now happen instead at Bethesda Regional Health Centre in Steinbach. Dr. Fortier says they are looking at the impact that this might have and how to shore up nursing services in Steinbach in order to support the potential influx.
Dr. Fortier says Bethesda certainly has the capability of accommodating some of the expected increase. However, he notes if the increase turns out to be more like 60 to 100 births per year, they will probably need to look at increasing their nursing resources there. In terms of physicians, Dr. Fortier says the expected increase should be manageable at Bethesda, however, Southern Health is also exploring the possibility of having a physician or two from Ste. Anne continue to offer some services in order to support the team in Steinbach.
"We're still exploring a lot of the consequences and trying to come up with some solutions," he adds.
In terms of how many additional physicians are currently needed in Ste. Anne, Dr. Fortier says that is difficult to answer. He notes for December alone, they were looking at 21 shifts where there would only be one physician in the Emergency Department. He notes that number felt unsustainable. He suggests they are probably six to eight physicians short in Ste. Anne of being able to adequately manage the obstetrics and Emergency Department.
Meanwhile, whether or not Ste. Anne Hospital can ever return to normal, Dr. Fortier says that depends on how you define, 'normal.' He says he cannot give a realistic timeline for when that hospital might return to a 24/7 Emergency Department.
"The nation is so far behind in terms of primary care capability," he says. "We are looking at many years to come back from where we are today."
Having said that, Dr. Fortier says that does not mean that Ste. Anne Hospital will not end up being a success story. He says he is also optimistic that by January or February, they could return to 12 hours of service daily for the Emergency Department there.
"Our goal is to increase the hours to 24 one day when we have enough physicians," says Dr. Fortier. "It is unsafe to return to a 24/7 Emergency Department if we don't have enough physicians."
He says they are dependent on massive health human resources renewal, not only for the region and province but the entire country.
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