Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital closes birthing unit as staff shortage worsens

A several-week closure of labor and delivery services at Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital is raising concerns that healthcare staff shortages are spreading to new areas of hospital operations.

The hospital said in an internal memo distributed to staff on Thursday that it would temporarily close the unit from Sept. 22 until 7 a.m. Oct. 10 due to staff shortages.

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The hospital typically operates four delivery rooms on its Smith Falls campus. The nearest alternative is now Almonte General Hospital, over 45 kilometers away.

“Staff shortages are starting to take hold of other services that are fundamentally very important,” said Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

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So far, hospital closures in the region have mostly been limited to emergency rooms and intensive care units. For that reason, Hurley said, “What’s happening in Perth is really worth watching.”

Perth’s closure “really needs to be watched,” said Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions. (Kate Buckert/CBC)

The closure follows a wave of similar cuts and closures at hospitals in eastern Ontario, including a more than three-week emergency department closure at Perth Hospital in July and another 24-hour closure at Carleton Place & District Memorial Hospital in early August.

Hurley said the recent closure “reflects a serious staff shortage” made worse by the relative lack of access to alternative healthcare in rural areas.

Perth is a “microcosm of the bigger problem,” says the doctor

The memo obtained by CBC News notifying staff of the closure includes rules for specific restrictions on how many and what type of patients can be treated in the labor and delivery unit during the closure.

Alan Drummond, an emergency doctor at Perth Hospital, said he believed the closure was likely “well thought out”, with reasonable contingencies for patient care. But, he added, the closure remains symptomatic of underlying issues of staff turnover and burnout.

“If there was ever an example of a system in crisis — or a healthcare system collapsing — our hospital would reflect that as a kind of microcosm of the larger problem,” Drummond said.

“Right now we nurses are bleeding like there’s no tomorrow… and it’s purely and mainly understaffing in nursing due to disrespectful treatment by the state government.”

Solutions in the works, the ministry says

Ontario’s Department of Health and Long-Term Care said in an email statement to CBC that it is addressing workforce issues through a health plan released in mid-August that will include up to 6,000 additional health care workers in the province.

However, Hurley isn’t convinced that will help much.

He said the additional workers are positive, but the total represents such a small proportion of the workforce that it represents a “very modest” initiative.

“We are asking the province to focus on measures to retain, attract and hire employees,” Hurley said. “You have to do better than at the moment.”

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