Hundreds of rural Saskatchewan residents gathered Tuesday night to demand answers after the Galloway Health Center in Oxbow, Sask., experienced at least a dozen emergency department closures in recent weeks.
And, despite reassurance from Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) officials that the staffing issues causing the disruptions have been resolved, community members say they aren’t convinced their local health care system is stable.
“It’s good, it’s a step in the right direction,” said local resident Tamara Brock, who helped organize the town hall which brought several SHA officials and local politicians to Oxbow.
“But our job doesn’t stop here. Since Jan. 1st I think we’ve seen over 100 hours that we’ve seen emergency services at this facility closed.”
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SHA Southeast Acute Care Director Colleen Easton was among the officials who took questions at the town hall. Easton said, by her count, the center had experienced ER disruptions on at least 12 different days since the start of the new year.
She said that to operate the ER requires at least one registered nurse to be on shift, and that due to multiple vacancies the remaining nursing staff has been unable to staff the emergency department around the clock.
“There were 2.5 vacant registered nurse lines in Oxbow which have subsequently been filled, and the incumbents are to be started in the coming days, so it’s my expectation that the service should stabilize and the disruptions should be minimized,” Easton said.
“It can take time to fill these positions and when they kind of gang up on you all at once you can have more than you can handle for a little while.”
Brock, though, said the nurses who were or were working at the Galloway Health Center had been overworked, exhausted and in some cases working hundreds of overtime hours per year. She’s not convinced that the new hires won’t have a similar experience and worries that if they do, they might burn out.
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“These nurses are working non-stop to keep this open. They’re tired. They’re taking time time away from their own personal lives to keep this open for us,” Brock said.
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When taking questions from community members, Easton promised to advocate for the addition of another registered nurse at the Oxbow facility.
But because health care workers are in high demand across Saskatchewan, Easton said he couldn’t make any promises.
A recent Saskatchewan auditor’s report, for example, pointed out that the SHA has predicted a need for 520 new registered nurses over the next five years.
“We will be making a request to consider an additional position so there will be some redundancy built into the system,” Easton said.
“We’re experiencing disruptions across the province. It’s a big provincial picture so I can’t guarantee one way or the other.”
Easton added that she did not know why the recently resigned nurses left.
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The news from the SHA, it seemed, wasn’t enough to alleviate their worries of the 250 or so area residents in attendance either.
Several voiced concerns about further ER disruptions, or general lack of service, to raucous applause from onlookers.
“If our ER is closed in Oxbow we could end up driving an hour away for emergency care,” said local paramedic David Dyck, who stepped up to the mic at the meeting.
“Transport time, getting someone to a higher level of care can cost someone their life.”
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Dyck said his team has experienced incidents where they’ve had to take patients to ERs in Estevan or Arcola because of closures in Oxbow, and added out-of-community services like STARS air ambulance can’t always fill in the gaps.
“It is very frustrating. We only have one ambulance in our town so just for a backup ambulance we’re waiting 30 minutes a lot of times,” he said.
“Then to have our local ER closed, to delay that even more, can be really frightening. We could have a multiple-casualty incident and we’re kind of by ourselves a lot of times.”
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The event’s organizers, meanwhile, said they plan to make notes of all concerns expressed at the town hall and communicate those to the province along with a demand for a comprehensive plan to keep health care services accessible.
Tamara Brock said the community hopes to have a continued dialogue with the SHA and the government of Saskatchewan moving forward.
“We are putting an action plan together and we will get it to the SHA and the government and ask them to complete the action plan or give us a date for when it will be completed.”
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