Cry for help
Area rallies demand better health-care services.
Cumberland County residents continue to send a message to the province about the state of their health care.
Less than a week after close to 500 people attended a rally on the lawn of the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre in Amherst, another 300 or show voiced their frustrations during a similar rally by the North Cumberland Memorial Collaborative Emergency Centre in Pugwash.
“People are not happy with what’s happening,” said Kathy Redmond, a former Cumberland municipal councillor and Pugwash village commissioner, who organized the rally. “There are no physicians and no coverage. It’s getting frustrating.”
Pugwash, much like All Saints in Springhill and the South Cumberland CEC in Parrsboro, have seen numerous closures of the emergency departments. These closures are not only frustrating for residents, Redmond said, it’s placing additional strain on the region’s biggest emergency room in Amherst.
“We just can’t continue on this way,” Redmond said. “The frustration level is high and … that’s not only placing a burden on the doctors who are here, but on the nurses because when people come in expecting a doctor to be there, they lash out at the nurse because there’s nothing they can do.”
After 8 p.m. there is paramedic/registered nurse coverage, but Redmond said there have been nights that’s not available either. Another issue is the availability of ambulances. She said there have been times when an ambulance has been called to transfer a patient, but none are available unless it’s an emergency.
Redmond, who headed a local health committee several years ago during another period of
frequent ER closures, said one issue is the province cancelled the rural ER locum program that helped entice doctors from larger centres to cover ER shifts in places like Pugwash.
“We really need that program back,” Redmond said. “When the incentive was taken away several years ago that’s when things started falling apart. Until we find a solution they need to put that program back in place, even if it’s temporary.”
Redmond said the situation is complicated adding some of the doctors servicing Pugwash have their own health issues.
“There’s only so much they can do, they’re human too,” Redmond said.
Unlike rallies in Amherst and Springhill, the rally in Pugwash was completely non-political with only Redmond and a trio of doctors speaking.
A new health-care facility was announced for Pugwash prior
to last year’s provincial election. That facility is still in the planning phase and ground likely won’t be broken until next year.
At the Aug. 22 rally, both Cumberland North MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin and Cumberland South MLA Tory Rushton urged people to speak up.
“We need you to stand with us and to have your voices heard,” the Cumberland North MLA said. “We have to send a message to the premier that we live in a democracy and let’s make sure we use it.”
Dr. Murray McCrossin and Dr. Brian Ferguson were joined by obstetrician Dr. Helen Sandland in urging the provincial government to give the regional hospital the support it needs to maintain its regional status.
The hospital has seen several doctors and specialists leave in recent months and those who remain are working extra shifts to maintain the emergency department
around the clock and to offer specialty services a regional facility must have.
Rushton said the Liberal government needs to know how important health care is in Cumberland County.
“The premier needs to know that while we’re on the New Brunswick side of the Cobequid Pass, we’re also on the Nova Scotia side of the New Brunswick border,” Rushton said. “This isn’t about politics, it’s about doing the right thing for the people of Cumberland County.
“Several weeks ago there was a story on the news about an ER closure in Nova Scotia. Here in Cumberland County that’s not breaking news, it’s something we have to deal with every day.”
Ferguson said doctors and other health professionals have been defending the deterioration of the hospital, now it’s time for the public to join the fray.
“We need you to get away from your computers and get out and start meeting, talking and representing yourselves,” said Ferguson, who announced recently that unless the situation improves he will be leaving Amherst after more than 30 years.
Ferguson said the provincial Liberals came into power in 2013 and immediately wiped out all the gains made by rural hospitals by centralizing administration in Halifax with disastrous results in places like Amherst and Cumberland County.
Dr. Sandland said doctors like her are getting tired.
“I just finished 21 days straight of being on call and that’s the norm because we’re shortstaffed,” she said. “We’re trying to recruit people to come to Cumberland County, and I love it here, but it’s hard to recruit people when they’re going to have to come here and work these types of hours. But we need the people to provide the care.”
While he didn’t speak at the rally, Amherst Mayor Dr. David Kogon issued a statement on behalf of his council.
“We pointed out to the minister that … the citizens of Amherst and Cumberland County deserve high-quality health-care services that are equal to those received by citizens in other parts of the province,” Kogon said in his statement, referring to a recent meeting with Health and Wellness Minister Randy Delorey. “We further pointed that failing to keep the Cumberland Health Care Centre a Level 2 regional facility would create financial hardships for many of our citizens, particularly those living in poverty, who would face financial hardship by being forced to travel greater distances for routine medical procedures. The minister concurred. To me that is reassuring.”
Outspoken Amherst physician Dr. Brian Ferguson and Health and Wellness Minister Randy Delorey finally have had the chance to talk about health care.
The Amherst doctor, who has threatened to leave his practice over what he sees as the degradation of services at the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre, recently had an hour-long conversation with the minister.
“It was a very good conversation,” Ferguson told the Amherst News. “We talked not just about the situation in Cumberland County specifically but about the situation across Nova Scotia, like in Sydney where they are getting hammered.”
Ferguson, who issued his ultimatum a couple of weeks ago to depart the province, was front and centre during a recent healthcare rally on the front lawn of the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre.
“We should be able to provide interventional health care to sick people within one and a half hours of their home. I think Randy Delorey will deliver that and saying that I believe that proves the worthiness of our hospital and protects us,” Ferguson said. “I think the tide will change that way.”
He is urging Health and Wellness, Doctors Nova Scotia and the provincial recruiter to get together and find a solution. He thinks it’s possible.
Delorey said he’s well aware of the situation faced by staff at the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre and his department is working with the Nova Scotia Health Authority and the provincial recruiter to alleviate the pressures. “I’ve been up to Amherst and Cumberland regional a number of times over the summer. Earlier in the summer I heard from the nurses in the medical unit who had some concerns,” Delorey said. “The feedback was positive and the NSHA has responded in a way that they were listened to and heard.”
The minister said he has heard from community groups and professionals who have concerns. People have suggestions and he’s open to hearing them.
“There are a lot of things underway and there are a number of things that are being evaluated, looked at and be readied to roll out,” he said. “There is a lot of work to be done and we are working on it.”
Among the initiatives already announced was the hiring of a second doctor recruiter for the northern zone, while two of 10 new spaces for Dalhousie University’s Family Residency Training Program will be in Amherst.
His department has funded six nurse practitioners and five family practice nurses for the northern zone over the last two years and is changing the way the medical unit at Cumberland regional is staffed to better meet the needs of patients, it is offering an emergency shift premium to help fill hard-to-fill ER shifts and is enhancing its locum program to help with short and long-term vacancies at the regional hospital.
He said the residency program should pay dividends because 75 per cent of those doctors tend to stay in the area they completed their residency training. He’s optimistic that will be the case in Amherst.
“When these residents are doing their training they will be providing primary care under the supervision of a family physician that’s supporting them in providing care to the people of Cumberland and the other areas,” he said. “In addition, when they finish their training they’re more likely to stay and set up practices in those communities.”
Delorey said he is committed to working to improve the situation across the province, but stressed solutions won’t happen overnight because many of the issues have been building over years.
He also said local community organizations, such as Cumberland’s task force, do have a role to play in recruiting by helping sell their community to potential recruits.
“They provide value in working with the recruiting team at the NSHA. It’s a great opportunity for collaboration,” the minister said.
Dr. Brian Ferguson addresses a large crowd at a recent health care rally in front of the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre. The crowd, estimated at more than 500, listened to doctors talk about the need for more support for the county’s lone regional hospital that is struggling with a shortage of physicians and declining programs and services.