For the second time in March, the Cormorant Island Community Health Centre emergency department is shut due to a shortage of physicians, and ʼNa̱mǥis First Nation and Island Health are working to address the situation.
On Jan. 27, Health Minister Adrian Dix announced a $30 million investment to help stabilize health care on the North Island, and that announcement came with a commitment that the Cormorant Island Community Health Centre emergency department would be open daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.
In both instances, the closure was a result of a shortage of doctors.
“From a nurse and allied health professional perspective, we’re actually seeing a lot of progress, what we’re continuing to struggle with is attracting physicians to the region,” said James Hanson, Island Health’s vice president of clinical services, acute care North and community services said in an interview with CHEK News.
“And so that’s the case here, from a nursing standpoint, we actually have staff all the way through April, in Cormorant Island, what we don’t have right now is secure physician coverage.”
For this health centre, Island Health says it only provides nurses and it is not responsible for providing physicians, it is the First Nation that provides them.
Kelly Speck, elected councillor and chair of the ʼNa̱mǥis health board, says doctors work with the nation at the ʼNa̱mǥis Health Centre, then are called to the emergency department at the Cormorant Island Community Health Centre as needed.
“In smaller places, like Alert Bay or Cormorant Island, the doctors are family physicians who actually also have hospital privileges. And so when there’s an emergency, you’re called in you’re not physically in the hospital, all day long, just waiting for an emergency, in fact, you’re providing primary care,” Speck told CHEK News.
“In our case, the ʼNa̱mǥis Health Centre, where our doctors generally function, is literally across the driveway, and so the hospital will phone and say, ‘We need you now,’ and so they drop what they’re doing and go over.”
Speck says with the hospital closure the community is anxious because living on an island means for any emergency care they will have to get over to Vancouver Island, which can be more or less difficult depending on the weather.
“People have anxiety about that, in terms of is the weather going to be occurring in a way that will allow easy evacuation, whether it’s by ferry,” Speck said. “At times where you’re going just to Port McNeill for instance, which is the nearest hospital community, you might be taken by water taxi, well again, the weather, what’s happening on water can really affect that.”
Speck notes there are also options to be taken by plane or helicopter, and Hanson says Island Health has been working with the community to reinforce that they should always call 911 if they need to access the emergency department while the emergency department is closed. When people call 911, BC Emergency Health Services has plans in place to get people transported to an open emergency department.
She says while she wishes more was done sooner to address the health care situation while it was unfolding, Island Health and the province are now working collaboratively to ensure something is done to resolve the matter.
“At this point in time, they’re working quite collaboratively with the ʼNa̱mǥis First Nation and responding very quickly if I or others from our nation are raising questions about what’s going on,” Speck said. “I don’t know much more that we could expect at this moment, given it’s the overall system that’s under pressure, it’s not just they’re ignoring ʼNa̱mǥis or they’re ignoring Cormorant Island, that’s not what’s happening, we recognize that.”
Hanson also notes Island Health is making progress in hiring for positions for the North Island, with 18 health care and support workers hired, four of whom were nurses, with about 20 more in the recruitment process.
“We’re doing absolutely everything we can to get back to 24/7,” Hanson said. “And as I mentioned, from a staffing standpoint, what we’re bringing to the equation is actually stabilization on the nursing side, so we are starting to see progress towards that. On the recruitment side, I can only say this is not an ideal situation, we’re obviously working with ʼNa̱mǥis to try and attract more physicians.”
Speck says she hopes that the new compensation model will mean more doctors and nurses are wanting to work in rural B.C.
“I really do hope that practicing outside of the bigger urban centers is something that will be seen attractive to those health care professionals,” Speck said. “Because right now, we haven’t generally been seeing that movement. We’re a wonderful place to live, so we hope they come.”