A rural Ontario hospital is closing its emergency department until December due what the health-care organization running it calls a "critical shortage of nurses" and a series of off-and-on closures that have become unsustainable.
The Chesley hospital emergency room closed on Friday, with a scheduled reopening date of Dec. 2. Other areas of the hospital like diagnostic imaging services, the inpatient unit and community lab collection will remain operational.
The decision to close the ER for two months follows a series of short-notice, temporary closures that the South Bruce Grey Health Centre said are "not a sustainable approach for our staff or the communities we serve."
"A further reduction in service is necessary for the safety of our patients and staff," the organization that runs the hospital said in a news release.
During the closure, the organization said it will consider the future of its service offerings that can be "safely provided" across its four hospital sites southern Grey and Bruce counties in southwestern Ontario, northwest of Toronto, given that health staffing in the province is expected to "remain a challenge for the foreseeable future."
The news release also noted that the hospital has been relying on agency nurses to fill shifts, but that solution is costly and not ideal. It said agency nurses are "not committed to our hospital sites," and are paid more than staff nurses, making them feel undervalued.
"SBGHC would much rather be putting the extra cost spent on agency nurses into the pockets of our own staff, who have worked tirelessly to support our organization and our communities. The unfortunate reality is that without using agency nurses at this time, the organization would be looking at additional closures and reductions in service," the release said.
Recruitment has been difficult, it added, but the "pool of available nurses is very limited" as hospitals across Ontario contend with staff shortages of their own.
The shutdown follows a spate of temporary emergency room closures at hospitals across Ontario over the last several months due to lack of staff, particularly nurses.
Rural hospitals have been hit harder by the problem. All of South Bruce Grey Health Centre's hospitals are serve rural communities in Chesley, Durham, Kincardine and Walkerton. The organization's website said it serves approximately 44,000 people, as well as thousands of season residents and tourists.
The organization has scheduled a community information session for Oct. 18 with staff and physicians.
A union representing Ontario nurses said people should demand action from their elected representatives in light of the Chesley closure announcement.
The Ontario Nurses' Association said "announcements of ER closures are becoming all too common and ... they must not be accepted so casually by the government."
France Gélinas, health critic for the provincial New Democrats, also called on the Progressive Conservative government to take immediate action to recruit and retain health-care workers, saying closing an ER can have "dire consequences, especially in a rural community."
In a statement, she said the province should scrap a bill that caps nurses' annual wage increases, raise wages to keep and attract workers and increase hospital budgets.
"We need to incentivize health-care workers and treat them with the respect they are owed," Gélinas said.
A spokeswoman for Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones pointed to previously announced spending on health-care recruitment and emergency department support.
Hannah Jensen said the government is planning to add up to 6,000 nurses and personal support workers in the next phase of its plan, with the goal of freeing up hospital beds and expanding models of care to avoid unnecessary emergency department visits.
"Our plan will support the healthcare system to address the urgent pressures of today while preparing for a potential fall and winter surge so our province and economy can stay open,” she said in an emailed statement.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2022.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press