“It’s a very difficult situation, and it’s getting worse,” said Whitbourne Mayor Hilda Whelan of the ongoing health care crisis in Whitbourne where urgent care services continue to operate at a drastically reduced capacity at the Dr. William H. Newhook Community Health Centre.
Due to severe staffing shortages, the emergency room at the centre was closed last year. Since then, the health centre has resumed urgent care services, albeit in a limited capacity with Eastern Health announcing closures to regular hours nearly every week this year.
“The aim was to have seven days a week, 12 hours a day (service),” said Whelan of the urgent care services which began in March. Currently, it is only operating three days a week, from 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Worse yet, the hours are inconsistent and susceptible to last-minute changes.
The reason for such unpredictability, said Whelan, is a continued lack of manpower. There is only one full-time doctor, she said. The other doctors who work at the care centre rotate constantly.
“This is what’s happening, they’re just moving people around…They don’t have new doctors, and if they’ve got them, they’re not placing them,” said Whalen. “It’s going to be a while before we get our 12 hours. We can’t even get the three days on a consistent basis.”
The closure of smaller clinics has had negative ramifications throughout the province, according to Whelan. She reproached the recommendation of Dr. Pat Parfrey, co-chair of Health Accord NL, to close small clinics. Whelan described that suggestion as “overpass syndrome.”
“The hospitals can’t handle it,” she said. “You have to have these clinics.”
She argued the lack of round-the-clock emergency care in smaller towns puts a strain on ambulance services and could cause “big trouble” down the road.
Whelan herself now must travel to Carbonear to receive a treatment that she used to get in Whitbourne. On her most recent trip, she said, there were about 50 people waiting to be seen, some of whom were sitting on the floor. She said that she waited around six hours to be treated.
“This is exactly why these small clinics like ours should not be closed,” said Whelan. “There’s 10,000 people in this area here, that use the Whitbourne clinic… and this is why the hospitals can’t handle it. These small clinics were geographically placed in a catchment to get all these people for emergencies and doctors’ appointments. And now with them closing up, the big hospitals can’t help it.”
The issue is that there simply aren’t enough doctors to keep such clinics in operation.
Whalen blames the practice-ready assessment policies at Memorial University for the Province’s inability to acquire a sufficient number of new doctors. The problem, she said, is not a lack of qualified applicants. “I know personally that they have a lot of applications, good applications,” she said, “I know there’s a lot of doctors being interviewed and a lot of doctors who would like to come here.”
Delays in licensing the applicants are slowing the process of getting new doctors to work on the island, Whelan maintained. But the practice-ready assessments are a necessary step for international medical graduates to become licensed doctors in the province.
“The problem is even though they have many highly qualified applicants, when they get them here, they have to wait a year or two before they can begin practice-ready assessment,” said Whelan. This is due to the limited number of seats available for practice-ready assessments at Memorial, she said.
The university was previously only taking seven people at a time for practice-ready assessment, said Whelan, but they’ve recently increased this number to 16 seats, twice a year. “That’s not good enough,” said Whelan, who said the university should not be in control of the assessments in the first place. She said they should be under government jurisdiction as is the case in the majority of Canada.
What is clear is that Whelan is not afraid to speak her mind on this subject. “I’ve been down their throats a lot,” she admitted, referring to the Board of Regents at Memorial. She is also in frequent contact with government health care officials and the Premier to voice her concerns. “It needs to be done,” said Whelan. “We’ve been in a crisis for a year and a half. That can’t be.”
The provincial member for the area, Placentia-St. Mary’s MHA Sherry Gambin-Walsh, declined two requests from The Shoreline to answer questions about urgent health care in Whitbourne. Gambin-Walsh suggested the paper discuss the matter with the communication director of the Department of Health and Community Services. The communications director, in turn, referred the request to the media relations manager for NL Health Services, who was likewise unable to answer questions on the matter.
Alexandra Brothers, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Shoreline News