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Saanich Peninsula, Salt Spring hospitals struggle with physician shortages

Numerous doctor shifts in emergency rooms are unfilled in the coming months; overnight service may be curtailed.
Lady Minto Hospital, Salt Spring Island. VIA GOOGLE STREEET VIEW

Two Island Health hospitals, on the Saanich Peninsula and on Salt Spring Island, struggled with physician shortages over the long weekend with doctors saying there’s a crisis involving unfilled shifts this month and next.

While both hospital emergency departments remain open, 11 Salt Spring Island ­doctors sent an urgent communique to their local newspaper warning of a staffing crisis in emergency, psychiatric and maternity care at the island’s only hospital.

The letter, published in the Gulf Islands Driftwood, was sent on behalf of the Lady Minto Hospital Medical Staff Association to advise the community of a severe staffing shortage covering emergency room shifts. Twenty-five 12-hour emergency shifts have no physician coverage from now until the end of August.

In the letter, medical staff emphasize that the emergency department remains open 24/7 for medical assessments. But the emergency department is already on diversion, which means, at times, there is no doctor at the hospital.

“The situation on Salt Spring Island is unique as there is no opportunity for an ambulance or patients to drive down the highway to the next emergency department or urgent care centre,” the letter says.

Meanwhile, Saanich Peninsula ER physician Dr. Jeff Unger has warned that with 16 shifts open in late May and June, ­overnight closings might be required because of insufficient staffing.

He said the hospital has been “scraping by month to month” since last fall, with last-minute coverage by a dwindling staff of physicians working more shifts, out-of-province emergency physicians flying in for short periods, or non-emergency-certified family physicians filling in.

Two of the hospital’s emergency physicians recently left for early retirement and two are now off for personal health reasons, “all attributable to burnout from the last several years of being pushed beyond sustainability,” Unger said.

Island Health announced Saturday that people with non-urgent medical needs may ­experience longer waits in the emergency department at ­Saanich Peninsula Hospital due to overnight staffing shortages. On a typical night, an average of 8.5 people go to the Saanich Peninsula emergency department.

On Monday, Island Health said in a statement that it is working with the physician groups.

When Lady Minto Hospital has a limited number of physicians available, the health authority said it works in collaboration with the physicians to adjust staffing to daytime hours when the emergency department is busiest. It said five patients on average visit Lady Minto ER overnight.

During overnight staffing shortages 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., people with non-urgent medical needs “may experience longer waits,” be given the option to return in the morning if possible, or the emergency department may be assisted by an off-site physician. “This model of care has been successfully used on four occasions this spring,” said Island Health.

People in need of emergency care should always call 911 or go to the ER, Island Health said.

“Lady Minto Hospital emergency department remains open and ready to provide emergency care for those who need it,” said Island Health.

If a person is unsure whether a medical situation requires a visit to emergency, a registered nurse is available toll free, 24/7 by calling HealthLink BC at 811.

The Lady Minto Hospital Medical Staff Association in its letter says the ER department physician coverage crisis will continue to affect the community over the summer months due to the absence of key specialty staff on Salt Spring Island. The physicians caution that transportation off-island can be complex “even when the transport is requested at the highest level,” the letter says.

A lack of any local psychiatrists remains a “huge issue” for those with mental health concerns and puts a greater burden on the emergency department, the physicians warn.

The physicians’ letter says the emergency department is as busy as ever “due to the very high number of unattached patients that have no family doctor and the increasing medical complexity of the aging population of Salt Spring Island.”

Island Health says recruitment of physicians and nurses continues. Over the winter, 17 new nursing staff were hired and a new physician is expected to join in July.

Inpatient care in all other units at both Lady Minto and Saanich Peninsula hospitals is not affected by temporary staff shortages, said Island Health.

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