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Durham ED to close overnight indefinitely beginning March 10 due to staff shortage

Posted: March 10, 2024

(March 08, 2024) by: Greg Cowan, Owen Sound Sun Times

The emergency department in Durham will soon close overnight due to a critical shortage of nurses, South Bruce Grey Health Centre announced.
Starting on March 10, the emergency department at the Durham hospital will shut its doors every night at 5 p.m. and reopen at 7 a.m. the next day. Until then, the emergency department in Durham will remain 24/7 barring any temporary closures.SBGHC said in a news release the overnight closures will extend for an indefinite period after March 10.SGBHC president and CEO Nancy Shaw said it’s too hard to predict when the emergency department will open overnight again, hence the indefinite timeframe.

“We certainly had lots of discussion around that, because that would be ideal, to be able to identify an end date, but unfortunately we can’t do that and we don’t want to give false hope and say six weeks and then in six weeks turn around and it’s now extended,” Shaw said.

Shaw said schedules are required to be delivered to nurses six weeks in advance under a collective bargaining agreement, and because of significant vacancies and the busy summer season around the corner, the outlook isn’t promising for a quick return to overnight services in Durham.

“Now we’re looking at the next schedule, and it doesn’t look any better, and then the next thing is we’re going to be upon summer when there will be vacation requests coming in. So, given where the timeframe is it was really hard to predict,” Shaw said.

Shaw said SBGHC is committed to keeping the four hospital sites open to patients.

“High-quality, accessible, sustainable patient care and access to care at all four sites,” she said. “When you’re supporting the delivery of rural healthcare it’s really important to sustain those access points for the communities.”

After March 9, patients requiring emergency care from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. who would typically travel to the Durham emergency department at 320 College St. are being asked to travel to the 24/7 emergency departments in Hanover (18 km), Mount Forest (24 km), Markdale (28 km), Walkerton (29 km) or Owen Sound (46 km). Or they can call 911 to be taken to the nearest 24/7 emergency department.

Shaw took over as president and CEO of SBGHC in April 2023. Over the past few years, SBGHC has had to temporarily reduce the hours at all four of its hospital sites in Chesley, Durham, Kincardine and Walkerton due to staffing shortages. Previously the most severely impacted hospital has been Chesley, where the ED was closed for eight weeks in the fall of 2022 due to a critical shortage of nurses. The Chesley ED remains closed overnight and on weekends.

“That has been going on for some time and there does not seem to be an end in sight at this point,” Shaw said. “The smaller sites, Chesley and Durham, appear to be more difficult to recruit to, so, I don’t anticipate any more closures at this time, however, scheduling remains precarious so it’s hard to predict.”

The Walkerton and Kincardine hospitals remain 24/7 sites.

Recently, SBGHC closed the Chesley emergency department completely on Feb. 3, Feb. 5, Feb. 7 and Feb. 14 due to staffing shortages, according to news releases. The Durham emergency department was closed overnight on both Jan. 27 and 28.

According to a report from the Ontario Health Coalition, an organization that advocates for publicly funded healthcare in Ontario, there were more than 868 temporary emergency department closures in the province in 2023, with the SBGHC site in Chesley among the hardest hit.

There were at least 51 emergency department closures at the Durham site in 2023.

“In the counties of midwestern Ontario – Perth, Huron, Wellington, Dufferin, Bruce and Grey – we are seeing multiple hospital emergency departments closed at the same time with little to no notice. Patients in medical crises have to confirm on their own that the next hospial emergency isn’t also closed,” said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition in a news release from Dec. 5, 2023.

“Hospitals across Canada and Ontario are facing staffing challenges and South Bruce Grey Health Centre is no exception. There are a significant number of unfilled nursing shifts for the Durham hospital that begin on March 10. We are experiencing an ongoing shortage of nurses and do not have the necessary staff to keep the Durham hospital emergency department open at night for the foreseeable future. This difficult decision has been made for the safety of our patients and staff,” said SBGHC in its news release.

“There are significant vacancies. We do continue to use agency staff as well, and even with the transition to straight days it still does not provide us with a robust schedule. A significant number of nurses are required,” Shaw said. “Ultimately there are not enough nurses in the system.”

Meanwhile, recently Ontario and the federal governments agreed on a $3.1 billion funding deal that is supposed to create new primary healthcare teams, which include family doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, pharmacists and social workers, as well as open another 700 spots in medical education programs.

A national health summit held in February 2023 resulted in the federal government offering to juice up the Canada Health Transfer to provincial and territorial governments with $46 billion in additional spending. The Province of Ontario and the federal government agreed in principle to an $8.6 billion deal over 10 years, of which this recently announced $3.1 billion covers the first three years.

– With files from Rob Gowan

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