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‘We are working seven days a week… to keep the hospital open’: Northern Health

Julia Pemberton says she understands residents’ fears following persistent ER closures
Julia Pemberton said there are not enough doctors to keep the emergency room consistently open in Prince Rupert at the moment. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

The Northern Health authority said it is working non-stop to prevent emergency room closures as concern grows following five straight days of closures at the Prince Rupert Regional Hospital, which is more than 140 kilometres from the nearest hospital in Terrace.

The health authority has said that an unconfirmed number of physicians will soon be leaving the area, which many residents fear will create more pressure on the remote city’s already-strained healthcare system.

Julia Pemberton, senior operations officer for the Northwest Health Services Delivery Area within Northern Health, stopped short of saying the city is experiencing a healthcare crisis, but acknowledged the current level of care is concerning.

“It’s a really tough time. There’s simply not enough people and the people who are here have a lot on their shoulders so we need to support them as well as recruit,” Pemberton said.

Pemberton said she understands the frustration many Prince Rupert residents are feeling, which has come to a boil on local social media channels.

“I just want to validate people’s concerns. This is very concerning, this is not the way we want our healthcare system to work,” she said.

“I totally acknowledge that and empathize with people’s concerns and that’s why we want to do everything we can to fix it.”

Burnout has become the main concern for physicians in Prince Rupert, according to Pemberton, who said the three eight-hour shifts the health authority must cover each day to keep the emergency room open are currently being shared by seven physicians.

“The amount of workload and burnout is intense,” said Pemberton, who was formerly the health services administrator for Prince Rupert and Haida.

Prince Rupert’s healthcare woes are not isolated according to Pemberton, who pointed to a report by the World Health Organization, which has predicted a global shortage of 10 million healthcare workers by 2030.

Pemberton said there is help on the way, with Northern Health confirming three new physicians will be arriving in the city by the end of 2024.

She also pointed to a March 1 provincial announcement that promised $30,000 in bonuses for nurses who sign on to stay for more than two years in northern communities, and a retention incentive paid every four months to each Northern Health employee in Prince Rupert, an initiative that began over a year ago.

Pemberton said the recruitment struggles are a reflection of what she said is a broader “shift in the way people are making decisions about where they want to live.”

According to Pemberton, the health authority is getting creative with its recruitment efforts to hire more physicians. She said childcare and housing are the two biggest challenges in recruitment and emphasized the importance of collaboration between the health authority and city hall.

“We are thinking outside the box,” she said. “We are looking to other health authorities to say ‘what are some things that have worked there and how can we bring them here?’ There’s no stone left unturned.”

Pemberton also clarified the Northwest Health Services Delivery Area has no say over what doctors in the region get paid.

“It’s not as simple as, ‘just pay them more money.’ We have provincial agreements, we have the North agreement, that talk about the payment model,” said Pemberton.

“The payment model for physicians is not something that local leadership has any input on.”

Locums — physicians who cover shifts temporarily from other communities — played a key role in keeping the emergency room open in February according to Pemberton. She said 46 per cent of the shifts over the month were covered by out-of-town doctors.

“We were able to stay open in February with that amount of locums, but you can just see that the math is really difficult and we’re asking people who work here to do more all the time and I think that’s really, really tough,” she said.

The health authority will be prioritizing recruitment of specialists, including midwives and urologists, she said.

Another frustration for residents has been that when there are closures the notices are last-minute.

“The notifications come out when they come out because we’re trying up until the last minute to problem solve, to fly people up, to get someone on the plane to see if someone from another center can get here in time,” she said.

Since embarking on her position as senior operations officer, Pemberton said she has not had a day off in her and the health authority’s efforts to ensure adequate services in the Northwest.

“I really care about this community and I want this community to have healthcare. It’s why I get up and go to work every day,” she said.

“No one wants to have a closure. It is the absolute last thing possible and we are working seven days a week… to keep the hospital open.”

Prince Rupert is not the only hospital in the region affected by physician shortages. Emergency rooms have been closed in numerous northern communities including Massett, Hazelton and Kitimat in recent weeks.

READ MORE: Physicians departing and ER closures put Prince Rupert on red alert

About the Author: Seth Forward, Local Journalism Initiative

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