Pictured is the emergency department at Strait-Richmond Hospital in Evanston which had 828 temporary closure hours in 2017-18.

HALIFAX: The minister of health was grilled about emergency department closures at two facilities in Richmond County.

During Question Period in the Nova Scotia Legislature on March 15, Cape Breton-Richmond MLA Alana Paon asked Minister of Health and Wellness, Randy Delorey, about the strategy used by the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) to recruit and retain doctors to staff the emergency departments at Strait-Richmond Hospital in Evanston and St. Anne Community and Nursing Care Centre in Arichat.

“… The Strait Richmond Hospital is in dire straits when it comes to coverage in the emergency department,” the Progressive Conservative MLA told the house. “ER closures are skyrocketing in my area. We have no ER physician listed on the NSHA job site on-line and that’s for the Strait Richmond Hospital and for St. Anne Community and Nursing Care Centre. Instead, we’re borrowing local doctors from other parts of Cape Breton and the mainland, and with shortages everywhere, there are often none to be found. For my attempts to get answers from the NSHA on how they intend to bridge this gap in a sustainable way, I have received no concrete action plan.”

If local doctors are not willing to take emergency department shifts and there are no other doctors to staff this need, Paon asked what her constituents are expected to do in emergencies?

Delorey, who is also the MLA for Antigonish, responded that the province takes emergency care delivery “very seriously” – and along with partners such as the NSHA, Emergency Health Services, and front-line health care workers – the department has been “working diligently” to evaluate the service and design a process to create improvements.

“The steps we’re taking… include investing in recruitment initiatives, locum coverage to bring in temporary physicians to cover those shifts,” Delorey told the house. “We’ve seen many shifts covered across the province since we’ve made changes to these programs in the Fall.”

In her supplemental question, the Cape Breton-Richmond MLA claimed the NSHA’s strategy to shore up emergency medicine is “not sustainable” in her riding.

“The NSHA’s own recruitment criteria for family physicians lists emergency medicine as an optional service,” Paon noted. “So not only are we facing a shortage of emergency medicine physicians, but those we’re calling on to urgently fill the gap don’t necessarily need to be emergency medicine specialists.”

Paon asked the minister to examine the “clear deficiency” in how the health authority plans to recruit and retain emergency physicians.

Delorey responded that the NSHA’s recruitment initiative is to focus on recruiting primary care physicians across the province.

“That work is part of strengthening our access to primary care, which helps keep people out of emergency departments when the primary care needs are being met,” Delorey told the house.

“For the last four months, we have seen fewer Nova Scotians registering as needing access to a primary care physician. That is showing that the initiatives we have been putting in place are working.”

According to the Accountability Report on Emergency Departments, published by the Department of Health and Wellness late last year, emergency department closures in the Eastern Zone increased 15 per cent over 2017.

According to the report, which was released in December, emergency departments with no scheduled closure hours saw the Strait Richmond Hospital with 828 temporary closure hours, while St. Anne Community and Nursing Care Centre had 451 temporary closure hours.