SHEET HARBOUR – The sudden, month-long shut-down of the emergency room at Eastern Shore Memorial Hospital (ESMH) in Sheet Harbour has left residents reeling and worried about the future of healthcare in their rural area.
“This is a worst-case scenario being realized and impresses upon us the urgency in addressing the causes and solutions of preventing such long-term, or any, closures of the emergency department in this part of the province,” Sheet Harbour Chamber of Commerce and Civic Affairs President Janice Christie told The Journal in an email on Jan. 2.
“Residents are afraid – not just for the month of January and the possibility of emergencies – but worried for the long-term effect of perhaps permanent closures,” added Christie, who is member of the ESMH Community Advisory Committee and works closely with Nova Scotia Health (NSH) personnel, MLA Kent Smith (Eastern Shore) and Halifax Regional Municipality Councillor David Hendsbee (Preston-Chezzetcook-Eastern Shore) on the recruitment and retention of medical personnel.
“This is the number one objective,” she said. “This is a province-wide and national issue as well … We, like the rest of the province, are vying for who can be available to us.”
On Dec. 28, NSH announced that the emergency department at ESMH – which has been shuttered as much as 50 per cent of the time over the past two years due to doctor and nurse shortages – will be closed from Jan. 1 to 31.
In an email to The Journal, NSH spokesperson Krista Keough confirmed that is the first time the hospital’s ER has been closed for this long a period at one stretch. Asked for the reasons, she stated: “Emergency department closures occur for various reasons; however, most often, they are due to physician/staff availability.”
In a subsequent email last week, Smith confirmed, “We [were] unable to find a physician to cover [at ESMH].” Asked whether he was informed of the shutdown in advance, he added, “I’m not sure on the timing — if anything, I got an email shortly before the schedule went out.”
Smith said, “I have spoken to the Department and asked for their help in finding a solution … All closures are concerning, and finding a solution for increased access to emergency care is my priority.”
In November, Smith told The Journal he was optimistic about the future at ESMH. “The emergency room closures are down significantly in the last couple months,” he said in an email at the time. “This is directly related to our ability to secure locum MDs to cover the shifts.”
Referring to the ER closure in his email last week, Smith said, “Part of the problem is related to the funding model for ESMH; we’ve been working on that since December 2021.”
ESMH serves a catchment area that includes Sheet Harbour and several other communities along the Eastern Shore. Three other hospitals — Twin Oaks Memorial, Musquodoboit Valley Memorial, and St. Mary’s Memorial in Sherbrooke — are located in or near that part of the province, but none are closer than 45 minutes by car to Sheet Harbour. According to Statistics Canada, the median age of the area is 51.
The shutdown has prompted strong reaction on social media from Sheet Harbour and area residents. Several individuals posted comments on Facebook. “So, we just don’t matter anymore???” one wrote. “We pay taxes in rural Nova Scotia for what exactly??”
Another noted: “We better hope that there is no winter weather and accidents or sickness. This is real scary.”
Added another: “Looks like Sherbrooke [St. Mary’s Memorial Hospital] will be busy!”
Still, Smith said, “We had been trending in the right direction, so I’m optimistic we will be able to return to a positive trend. I’m very proud of the work the community advisory committee is doing.”
Christie said, “It is distressing for the community to be faced with emergency department closures for a full month. We are focussing on a variety of solutions [and] NSH is working to confirm locums who are available to continue to take shifts at ESMH … ESMH has been successful in a number of endeavours including hiring a permanent nurse practitioner and securing two locums to take shifts over the past couple of months.”
As for the long term, she said, “A new model of care is being developed. [It] will be a collaborative approach and include virtual care, RN’s ability to suture and prescribe and a nurse practitioner. Training is required and the process will take time. But, the important thing is [that] a process is being developed.”
Regarding the immediate situation, NSH’s Keough said, “Anyone experiencing an emergency should not hesitate to call 911. Even when a local emergency department is closed, the overall emergency system is never closed. Paramedics will make the call as to the most appropriate site to take people … If [people’s] local emergency department is closed and they are thinking about travelling to another nearby emergency department, they should call that hospital’s switchboard to see if their emergency department is open.”
She added: “For general health advice and information, people can call 811, which is a service offered 24 hours a day, seven days a week by experienced registered nurses. The provincial Mental Health and Addictions Crisis Line can also be reached 24/7 by calling 1-888-429-8167. For non-urgent care, we recommend seeing a family doctor/primary care provider … A PSA will be issued to announce any openings [at ESMH] that may arise.”