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1,199 emergency room closures in Ontario this year: Report

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More than 1,000 times this year, an Ontario hospital emergency department or urgent care centre closed its doors because there weren’t enough nurses to fill shifts.

“Our hospital emergency rooms are the safety net of our healthcare system, and 1,199 times in Ontario in the last year, they were closed. This is horrifying,” said NDP health critic, France Gelinas, outside Queen’s Park on Tuesday.

The Ontario Health Coalition report points to 868 times that an Ontario emergency room was closed due to a shortage of staff, so far this year. On 316 occasions, an urgent care centre closed its doors.

Closures spread to outpatient labs, obstetrics, labour and delivery, and ICU, according to the report — it is equivalent to 31,055 hours of lost care.

Leading the way is midwestern Ontario, with chronic and ongoing closures at emergency rooms in Clinton and Chesley that have lasted more than four years.

“In Arran-Elderslie we have many retirees and seniors. We have number of Mennonite and Amish families, as well. For those groups, advice to just drive down to the nearest hospital down the line is not as easy as it sounds,” explained Brenda Scott, leader of the Save the Chesley Hospital Citizen’s Group.

“We’re fortunate we have an ambulance station here in Clinton, so that helps somewhat, but I liken it to Russian roulette. Sooner or later, it’s going to catch up to us, and it’s going to cost someone their life,” said Central Huron Mayor, Jim Ginn.

Hospitals surrounding Chesley and Clinton have not been immune. The Durham Hospital ER has been closed 51 times this year, and Wingham’s ER 31 times. Walkerton’s ER has closed 20 times and Seaforth has closed 17 times.

Maarten Bokhout, a former physician and medical officer of health for Huron County, said bringing back burnt out nurses, and possibly returning their right to strike, could be a quick fix to the nursing shortage.

“The only thing they could do, besides work, was to quit, and a lot of them did. You’ve to got to figure out how to get those nurses back,” said Bokhout, who calls Clinton home.

While the numbers suggest otherwise, Lynanne Mason, chief nursing executive with the Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance, sees recent signs of progress.

At Clinton’s hospital, for example, the addition of clinical externs has decreased the hospital’s reliance on agency nurses, as the hospital remains committed to return to 24/7 care.

They just can’t say when.

“These are local nurses. They know Clinton, know our area, and are very happy to be here. While it still remains frustrating, and really tough, and not where we want to be, we’re seeing some positive gains, and we want to continue that momentum. So, that commitment remains in place,” said Mason.

In the interim, places like Chesley and Clinton, and most recently Durham, are dealing with daily closures of their emergency rooms and the fear of what could happen as a result.

“These service cutbacks are dangerous. People in rural Ontario will die as a result of these changes,” said Scott. 

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