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“It’s kind of absurd”: Elkford Health Centre’s emergency department approaches 17th month of closure

Mayor Steve Fairbairn calls the problem one of bureaucracy
The emergency department at the Elkford Health Centre has been closed since Sept. 29, 2021.

The Elkford Health Centre’s emergency department closed on Sept. 29, 2021, and has not reopened since then. For the past 16 months, Elkford residents in need of emergency care have had to travel to Sparwood, Fernie, or beyond.

Prior to the department’s closure, it was staffed by doctors who worked in other communities throughout the Elk Valley. This staffing system required doctors to travel to Elkford from their primary offices to work shifts at the clinic.

These shifts resulted in long hours and significant amounts of travel which became unsustainable for many doctors who eventually went on to take positions elsewhere.

“I certainly don’t blame them for that,” Elkford mayor Steve Fairbairn said.

The last doctors and nurses left the emergency department in 2021 and have not been replaced. Of the clinic’s non-emergency departments that are still operating, most medical positions have been filled by temporary doctors who are generally only around for a few weeks or months at a time.

The staffing problems at the Elkford Health Centre reflect a greater trend in Canadian medicine.

Clinics and hospitals across the country are understaffed and underfunded. Despite a worthy pool of applicants and an obvious need for more doctors, Canadian medical schools remain extremely selective — arguably to a fault.

Qualified candidates who cannot find a spot in Canadian institutions now travel to the US and Europe where there are more offerings. At the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, for example, Canadians make up more than 40 per cent of the student population.

Fairbairn has said that prior to his term as Mayor, the city made an effort to offer greater financial incentives to doctors working at the clinic, but was instructed not to do so by Interior Health.

“Other than advocacy, it’s entirely beyond our control,” Fairbairn said of Elkford’s role in filling their staffing shortage.

Interior Health has said that at least two full-time positions at the Elkford Health Centre will be filled by July 2023. After the doctors are hired — and within a year of July 2023 — the rest of the centre’s medical staff positions will also be filled.

“Until you have physicians, you can’t fill the other positions,” Fairbairn said.

Fairbairn sees the centre’s staffing shortages as a major barrier to the city’s efforts of growing and welcoming more families.

“If we don’t have the services we had 30 years ago when the population was 600 people less, it’s going to be very difficult to keep Elkford growing into the future,” he said.

Although the Elkford Health Centre’s problems have been caused by doctors and health staff leaving the area, Fairbairn is careful not to place any blame on them individually.

“I firmly believe every single employee has really worked hard and performed at the best of their abilities,” he said. “This is not a problem caused by employees, its a problem caused by bureaucracy.”