SHEET HARBOUR – Eastern Shore Memorial Hospital’s (ESMH’s) long-shuttered emergency department is no more. In its place, a new urgent care centre will handle non-life-threatening cases at least two days a week, Nova Scotia Health (NSH) announced on March 3.
The move, which became effective on Monday (March 6), lets the hospital — whose physician-strapped ED just entered its third straight month of closure — provide same-day appointment-only care for a wide variety of illness and ailments, though “it will not receive ambulances.”
In a phone interview with The Journal last week, ESMH’s provincial health services manager Amy Donnelly explained that while there is no longer “an emergency department at Eastern Shore Memorial, the new centre is similar in that it treats urgent needs that arise the same day. You don’t have to wait to get into an appointment with a family physician. You can just call our number and, if we can put you in to the urgent care setting, you can come and get triaged like you would in an emergency department.”
The change follows a provincial government decision last week to alleviate the hospital’s perennial shortage of critical care physicians — which has kept its ED consistently closed over extended periods for at least five years — by reclassifying the facility for “urgent care.” Said Donnelly: “Once the Department of Health and the premier approved, we were able to open the doors.”
According to the announcement, the reclassification means “more consistent access to [treatment for] those with unexpected, but non-life-threatening health concerns.”
Examples of these include: mild abdominal pain; simple fractures; limb sprains; mild muscle strains and sprains; mild headaches; earaches; minor infections; skin and eye irritations; mild asthma; small lacerations; mild mental health support; and minor respiratory issues.
Initially, the schedule calls for “care the same day at least two days per week,” with openings between 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., on: March 6, 9, 13, 14, 18, 20, 21, 25, 27, 28, and 30. “Regular operating hours will be shared in public service advisories, social media and the Nova Scotia Health website [and] Additional dates will be added,” the announcement noted.
The reclassification could also improve long-term healthcare delivery in this geographically large, but sparsely populated, part of Nova Scotia, Eastern Shore MLA Kent Smith told The Journal in an email. For one thing, the new urgent care centre pays doctors far more than the hospital’s previous level 4 ED.
“It’s $160 an hour, [compared with about $77],” he said. “Hopefully, [that will] make it more attractive. As a level 4 ED, it had been irregular and unpredictable since 2017 with recent closure rates at 100 per cent. The difference is that urgent care is now predictable, and access is far more reliable.”
He added: “Step one [was] getting the classification changed. Step two is filling the shifts so the daytime model is completely covered. Then, step three is figuring out an overnight model. There’s more work to be done, but this is progress.”
Donnelly said the hospital has already recruited two of its three family physicians to the new centre. “They’re full time in Sheet Harbour, with their offices in the hospital, and they’ve picked up urgent care shifts.”
Asked whether NSH would consider, at some point, restoring Eastern Shore Memorial’s formal ED, she noted, “It’s not to say that there couldn’t be [one] in the future. If we are able to recruit some physicians who are interested in working in an emergency department — in putting down roots in the community — then we could absolutely reconvert back to that classification in the future. [But] we had to build a model that the [current] providers [physicians] wanted to work in. Otherwise, we’re just a closed ED. Truly, we haven’t been an emergency department [here] for quite some time.”
Janice Christie, president of the Sheet Harbour Chamber of Commerce and Civic Affairs (SHCCCA), applauded the announcement.
“It puts this rural hospital back on a level playing field from a pay scale perspective [for] recruiting and retaining medical personnel,” she told The Journal in an email. “It’s evident that… Kent Smith and Amy Donnelly… have been working collaboratively to bring resources to this community. It’s an encouraging first step.”
Last month, SHCCCA received nearly $82,000 from the province for physician recruitment and retention. According to that announcement, “The [Chamber] will focus on [attracting] healthcare professionals to Eastern Shore communities. Activities will include exhibiting at physician events and developing a welcome guide and a promotional campaign.”