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‘I can’t believe that I am seeing this happen …’: Community reacts to urgent care service reduction

Posted: June 9, 2023

(June 7, 2023)

By: Sarah Ferguson, Richard  Hutton, Port Colborne Leader

When Bob Saracino first learned the urgent care centres (UCC) in Fort Erie and Port Colborne will no longer operate overnight he was overcome with emotion.

As of July 5, both UCCs will provide service between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. To deal with a shortage of health-care workers, Niagara Health is reducing urgent care hours in Port Colborne and Fort Erie to keep Niagara’s three emergency departments operating.

“I can’t believe that I am seeing this happen in my lifetime,” he said. The former Port Colborne mayor was a major figure in the fight to save Port Colborne General Hospital in 2009, which was eventually downgraded to an UCC.

“If I was younger, I would take up the fight again and rally the troops,” he said.

Saracino said there are many older adults, families and individuals that don’t have access to transportation who will be impacted by the change.

Fort Erie resident Lesley Kinghorn admitted she was upset when she first heard the news. She had similar concerns as Saracino about the reduction in service, and the need for people to travel to the Niagara Falls hospital site if they can’t access the UCC.

“Most days it might be fine. But we had a blizzard the day before Christmas this past year and people couldn’t get out of town for days,” she said.

Fran Semley credits the Port Colborne UCC with saving her life, and wonders how the overnight closures will impact others in the community.

In 2018, Semley was exercising when she became nauseous and felt pain in her upper arm.

She was taken to the UCC. Within seconds, she was examined by a triage nurse, moved to a treatment room and quickly treated. Within 23 minutes she was in an ambulance and headed to Hamilton General Hospital.

“Port Colborne UCC has a special place in my heart. I don’t know where I would have been without it.”

Semley said she hopes government officials can look at ways to provide incentives to bring more health-care professionals to Niagara. “There’s such a shortage of doctors. They’re burnt out, especially after the pandemic.”

Niagara Health president and CEO Lynn Guerreiro said both mayors were given “a heads up” that changes were on the horizon.

“We knew we were going to have to do something because the data was showing us very clearly that doing nothing was not going to be an option,” she said. “We have been speaking to them along the way. Their reaction is one of disappointment and I think that’s really important to note.”

The UCC changes come as Niagara Health is preparing for an expected shortage of 274 physician shifts between now and August.

While the cut back in hours at the UCC’s doesn’t solve the problem, it will free up resources without causing too much disruption, the health system said. Fort Erie sees an average of 11 patients overnight and an average of one visit every three hours between midnight and 7 a.m. In Port Colborne, 13 patients are seen on average overnight with an average of one visit every three hours between midnight and 7 a.m.

The top reasons for visits to the UCC, according to Niagara Health, are for such things as acute respiratory infections (949 visits) and urinary tract infections (493).

Guerreiro said a part of the solution for municipalities such as Fort Erie and Port Colborne would be access to team-based primary care, something she has discussed with both Wayne Redekop and Bill Steele.

“I think when you look at some of the things that people are going to the UCC for, those are conditions, that if they have access to same-day or next-day appointments, which is what team-based comprehensive primary care should give you, they will not need to go to the centre.”

She added the changes don’t mean the UCCs in either facility faces imminent closure before a new south Niagara hospital is up and running.

“Right now, it is our intent to continue to operate the UCCs and to keep those sites open until 2028.”

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