Doctor shortage closes Princeton emergency room

While others enjoyed the final throes of summer, Princeton Mayor Randy McLean spent his long weekend anxiously eyeing the highway — nervous something would go awry after the local emergency room was shut down due to staffing levels.

“The Monday of the long weekends of July 1, Aug. 1 and September Labour Day is always extremely heavy traffic,” McLean said. “Even if you’re not really concerned about Princeton, you still have a lot of travelling public.

“All it takes is one freak accident or something and then you’ve got people looking for medical care out of the middle of the Hope-Princeton, and it could already be three-quarters of an hour to the hospital to Princeton, and now you’re talking an hour and a quarter past that. It’s just frightening.”

Princeton General Hospital is not new to doctor shortages. At least three times this year, the emergency room has had to shut its doors to walk-in patients because there were no doctors on staff. A locum, or temporary doctor, would always be on call to provide coverage, however, should an emergency arise with serious injuries.

“But this one, there was no coverage for injuries,” McLean explained, adding the locum phoned in sick just before the shift was supposed to start. “We have a new mine with 300 workers, a new mill with 300 workers and then you have the long weekend highway ... You put all those things together and, to me and to this community, it’s an unacceptable situation.”

A doctor was found to oversee care of the rest of the hospital, so no patients had to be transferred out of Princeton. There were no reports of serious injuries from motor-vehicle accidents or industrial workplace incidents. Regularly scheduled doctors were able to open the emergency room as of 8 a.m. Tuesday.

But for McLean, it was too long of a wait.

“From our perspective, it’s an unfortunate situation and a last-minute thing and all that, but in our mind, when you think about our hospital, you have to have a contingency plan in place for those kinds of emergencies,” he said. “We want to try and ensure that this sort of thing is taken into consideration and doesn’t happen again.”

Princeton General Hospital administrator Susan Brown explained that having a locum phone in at the last minute on a long weekend prompted a “very unforeseen situation,” which exhausted all backup plans the hospital has for ER coverage.

“We got to the point within our contingency plan where we had to make that decision to close the emergency room. That isn’t a decision we made lightly,” she said. “We have a limited pool of resources of locums that we can call on in each community, but they’re usually booked well in advance. In this case, we had a long weekend, very short notice on an unforeseen circumstance. There wasn’t anybody else we could call on at that point in time.

“We certainly explore every option available to us before we close an emergency department.”

Walter Despot, the mayor of Keremeos and chair of the Okanagan Similkameen Regional Hospital District board, said the situation was “most unfortunate.”

He said Penticton Regional Hospital is undergoing a similar doctor shortage. The facility is currently in need of two obstetricians and one pediatrician who work in tandem on high-risk births. Pregnant women anticipating their first born or those with potential complications may have to travel temporarily.

“Unfortunately for a possible delivery that’s going to have complications, you need the obstetrician who can help deliver the baby safely and then hand it off to the pediatrician,” Despot said. “If you don’t have those two, you don’t have a team and you can’t have a high-risk birth.”

The current shortages may be a symptom of short-sighted planning in the health-care field decades ago, he said, which doesn’t help the present situation.

“We can wonder why 20 years ago we didn’t increase the enrolments in B.C. medical schools,” he said. “People can hoot and howl and complain, but people need to realize they’re working to bring people into those positions in Interior Health and our regional district. It’s a real big uphill struggle.”


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