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Communities in Interior Health feeling effects of nursing shortage

The ER in Clearwater has experienced closures, and a new RIH wing might have trouble finding staff
Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital in Clearwater is one of several Interior Health care centres impacted by service reductions. (File photo)

Ongoing closures at Clearwater’s Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital have prompted calls to Interior Health to split the region into two to help recruit and retain workers in rural communities.

Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell said the move is needed immediately to create a better working environment and provide incentives for nurses and hospital staff in small-town B.C. His call follows 11 closures at Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital in April and May.

While most closures saw the department shut down overnight, one closure spanned 50 hours, leaving the town without an emergency room for over two days.

“Obviously there’s a concern. Clearwater, Dr. Helmcken, the whole rural practice aspect of our region isn’t getting the attention that it needs by the Interior Health system,” Blackwell said.

“There’s a lot of people that have stepped out of the health care system because of COVID, because of retirement, because they’ve had enough. If we don’t start enticing some of those people back into the system, we are in for a very long haul until new people are willing to come in…and we’re going to be fighting off every other jurisdiction in Canada for that.”

The staff shortages aren’t limited to Clearwater. Closures are being felt across Canada - including communities such as Ashcroft and Barriere - due to everything from pandemic burnout to retirements, workplace culture, and a lack of housing.

Hours at the Ashcroft Community Health Centre were reduced in January due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Mayor Barbara Roden said they have yet to return. She said council has heard from a lot of angry residents about it.

“There’s a real sense here that over the last 15 to 20 years we’ve seen service after service that the hospital used to offer cut back and then disappear,” Roden told the Times, adding the community used to boast a full-service hospital, where patients could recover from surgery or have a baby, as well as a 24-hour emergency department.

“And one by one, a lot of those things have just disappeared, and so when people hear of something like this, they are not reassured when Interior Health tells them it’s temporary.”

Roden agreed that splitting IH into two would benefit the region, noting Kelowna, where the health authority is headquartered, is “so far removed” from rural communities. An Interior Health spokesperson said they hadn’t heard the suggestion, but any decisions to split the region would be made by the province.

Meanwhile, Carl Meadows, Interior Health executive director of clinical operations for the Thompson Cariboo, said they are actively recruiting externally, as well as adding positions to help support departments when a staff member has to miss a shift.

He maintains the aging population has also exacerbated the issue. Recent census data from Statistics Canada showed that the population of smaller communities like Clearwater and Barriere are aging.

“They don’t have a large portion of the population under 54 years of age to be able to support the positions or they just don’t apply for them,” Meadows said. “Nursing vacancies are one of our biggest challenges.”

Indeed, in Kamloops, a $417-million, nine-storey patient care tower at Royal Inland Hospital is set to open in July. The new tower will connect to the existing facility on five levels, with a rooftop helipad. However, mayor Ken Christian said he is concerned that in a hospital that has experienced extensive staff shortages, sometimes leaving some departments with one nurse to nine patients, there won’t be anyone to fill the available staff positions.

He suggested there are other actions the health authority could take, such as providing wait times online and in the hospital for patients so they know what to expect, or disclosing the number of hospital beds that are full. IH should also be more transparent with residents, added Christian.

In Barriere, mayor Ward Stamer said the shortages aren’t having as big of an effect as the emergency room isn’t open on weekends, and most residents will just take the trip to Kamloops. He said he is more concerned with the shortage of ambulances.

“In most cases, we’re trying to get that patient to acute care as quickly as we possibly can,” said Stamer. “If the ambulance service isn’t there for us, what are we going to fall back on?”

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