SHEET HARBOUR – Emergency room closure rates at Eastern Shore Memorial Hospital have more than doubled to nearly 50 per cent over the past 12 months, pointing to a worsening doctor shortage on the Eastern Shore, according to The Nova Scotia Health Authority.
In an interview with The Journal, N.S. Health Services Manager Amy Donnelly confirmed that the hospital’s acute care facilities were “closed 47 per cent of the time last year. [In 2019-20], the closure rate was 23 per cent,” noting that the institution is “struggling with recruitment, particularly physicians.”
Donnelly discussed the crisis at a public meeting on October 6 in Sheet Harbour – a disclosure requirement under the Emergency Department Accountability Act. She said that Eastern Shore Memorial employs just two physicians to provide around-the-clock emergency care. Without more doctors, she added, the situation is unlikely to improve.
“Obviously, two doctors can’t cover it, 24/7,” she said. “We struggle with nursing staff, too, but it just so happens that we’ve been able to piece together enough [of them]. It’s the doctors where the big gap is.”
Sheet Harbour Chamber of Commerce President Tom McInnes, who organized the meeting, noted that, while the news was disappointing, it was not unexpected. “A year ago, I saw the statistics,” he said in an interview. “It’s a big challenge. The answer is not simple. They [N.S. Health] are not trying to paint a great picture,” adding, however, “It was a very good meeting with a lot of good comments and suggestions.”
Among the remedies discussed was moving toward an Alternate Payment Plan (APP) for rural physicians who typically don’t see enough patients to earn a sufficient income through the customary fee-for-service model. “With an APP, they would kind of get paid by the hour,” Donnelly said.
Another option is an Open Pool Posting, in which the hospital would advertise for broad sets of qualifications, rather than specific jobs. “If we can’t get one full-time nurse, for example, maybe we could get two part-time ones,” she said.
Administrative streamlining and job-sharing with other institutions were also discussed.
“One thing we’ve been doing at Occupational Health [Department of Labour and Advanced Education] has been expedited onboarding,” Donnelly said. “You can do some of the paperwork and other things that have to be completed for hiring after [new employees] start their orientation. That’s helping us get folks in the door a little quicker.”
She added: “Right now, we’re also sharing staff with Twin Oaks Memorial Hospital in Musquodoboit and Middle Musquodoboit [Musquodoboit Valley Memorial Hospital]. When we do have a shortage, we can reach out to other facilities and use some of their casual staff.”
According to McInnis, a more durable fix will require changes to parts of the healthcare system and to the civic designation of Sheet Harbour. With an official population of merely 800, Statistics Canada still considers it part of the Halifax Regional Municipality Census Metropolitan Area’s agglomerated 440,000 residents.
“The problem is that if you are a new doctor coming out Dal Medical School or anyplace, and you went to work in Sheet Harbour, it would be no different than if you went to work in downtown Halifax,” he said. “If you went to Guysborough or Antigonish or New Glasgow, you would get $40,000 of your tuition costs paid off right away. But that [incentive program] is for ‘rural’ areas. It doesn’t apply to a heavily populated area like HRM, into which Sheet Harbour has been lumped.”
Beyond this, Donnelly added, “It’s hard enough to get doctors into Halifax, let alone get them to come to Sheet Harbour. What can we do about housing? What can we do about transportation? What can we do about how can we sell this community to really show people how great it is?”
Meanwhile, McInnis said, Sheet Harbour is rallying behind any solutions that promise to shore up emergency medical services sooner rather than later. He and Donnelly, for example, have raised $12,500 from various government and community sources to put together a promotional package about the area.
“This is not unique to us,” McInnis said. “Everyone’s looking for a doctor. Everyone’s looking for nurses. We just have to do a better job at selling. I mean, if you’re in Sheet Harbour, there’s pretty much every amenity you want. But, you know, you got to want that lifestyle.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: In the original version of this article, Eastern Shore Memorial Hospital was incorrectly referred to as Eastern Memorial Hospital. The article has been updated as of October 14, 2021 to correct this error.