Concern, anger, promises and hope greet P.E.I. doctors’ open letter on Prince County Hospital

Health Fitness

Two years ago, Alison Millard resigned from her permanent position at Prince County Hospital because she felt she was “suffocated and drowning” in P.E.I.’s health-care system. 

Millard had worked as a critical-care nurse at the Summerside hospital for over a decade, but the constant staff shortages finally became too exhausting for her and her family.

Along with many health workers still at the hospital, she says PCH is now facing a crisis that could have serious impacts on the care all Islanders receive — not just those in central and western P.E.I. 

“It’s frustrating, it’s devastating, it’s heartbreaking,” Millard told CBC News. “You invest your blood, sweat and tears into this place and to just have zero control and watching it crumble from a distance — it’s awful and it’s terrifying.

“I live here; these are my services too. What happens if something happens to one of my family members?” 

On Friday, 42 doctors with the East Prince Medical Staff Association took the unprecedented step of writing an open letter that said Prince County Hospital is facing an emergency that requires swift and drastic action from both the provincial government and Health P.E.I. 

Doctors with the East Prince Medical Staff Association have written an open letter that said Prince County Hospital is facing an emergency that requires swift action from the P.E.I. government. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC)

In the letter, the doctors say severe human resource gaps are causing an “ongoing crisis” at the Island’s second largest hospital. 

Earlier this week, Health P.E.I. announced that the PCH would begin accepting fewer critical-care patients due to a lack of staff in the progressive-care unit starting in late January.

The progressive-care unit opened last spring as a replacement for the hospital’s intensive-care unit, which was closed due to a shortage of internal medicine specialists. Patients who require intensive care are currently being transferred to Charlottetown’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, the province’s largest facility.

Why this nurse resigned from P.E.I.’s 2nd-biggest hospital

Alison Millard worked as a nurse at Summerside’s Prince County Hospital for years, but resigned when the strain started taking a toll. She tells CBC News about the struggles she’s seen in recent years, and how the problems are affecting patients and staff.

The doctors wrote in the letter that centralizing all critical-care services at the QEH will pose a challenge that “invites poor patient outcomes.” 

Millard said that kind of prospect used to keep her awake at night with worry. 

It’s like an elastic band — we’ve stretched that staff very significantly over the past few months, and you can’t continue to stretch that band without breaking it.— Mark McLane, P.E.I.’s health minister

“The challenge of transporting patients to QEH for other services — it’s not as simple as just whipping a patient in the back of an ambulance and driving down. It takes the stabilization of a patient, which can take a team of people,” she said.

“Having all the stars align became so much of a challenge. It was frustrating when all you want to do is to look after the patient in the bed. The system is just not conducive to that.”

On Friday afternoon, P.E.I. Health Minister Mark McLane told CBC News his department is working with Health P.E.I. to ensure both of the province’s largest hospitals can operate as best they can in the circumstances. 

A man with short grey hair in a dark blue suit stands in front of a microphone.
‘We do not want to reduce services at the PCH, full stop,’ says P.E.I. Health Minister Mark McLane. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

“It’s important that everybody understands that we do not want to reduce services at the PCH, full stop,” McLane said. “We need that hospital to operate as efficiently and as effectively as possible.

“But it’s like an elastic band — we’ve stretched that staff very significantly over the past few months, and you can’t continue to stretch that band without breaking it.” 

Reaction from many fronts

The doctors’ letter on Friday prompted a slew of reaction from groups across the province.

In a statement, interim Health P.E.I. CEO Corinne Rowswell thanked the East Prince Medical Association for advocating for its patients, and said the agency is committed to securing more staff for the Summerside hospital.

Corrine Rowswell
Corinne Rowswell, who has been Health P.E.I.’s interim CEO since Jan. 1 of this year, says recruitment and retention are vital to helping solve Prince County Hospital’s staffing shortage. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

“There have been recent hires to medical staff at PCH and concerted efforts to bring in more staff members. But we need to do even more. Recruitment and retention are vital to securing the PCH into the future,” Rowswell wrote.  

Local politicians also said they stand united with Prince County Hospital’s doctors, nurses and staff, while formally requesting that the province immediately restore the intensive care unit to its former state. 

“The City of Summerside, on several occasions, has made significant attempts to draw attention to the severity of the situation with Health P.E.I. and our provincial elected officials. However, it’s evident that to date, very little has been accomplished,” the city said in a statement.

“The PCH and the people who work there play a critical role in the lives of residents in Prince County, and as a city, we simply will not accept the ongoing erosion of our hospital services at PCH.” 

‘I don’t feel like it had to come to this’ 

The International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents more than 1,300 health professionals on the Island, said it has been advocating both publicly and privately for a plan to address staffing shortages. 

“We have repeatedly been rebuffed at the idea that these shortages were reaching critical levels,” the union said in a statement.

“Our most recent efforts to address the immediate staffing crisis [are] being met by wildly inconsistent messaging and a lack of accountability from Health P.E.I. and PCH administration — inconsistency that has resulted in mass confusion for everyone involved.” 

Millard does hold on to some hope that the letter and the outcry it prompted will help save Prince County Hospital, its patients and the staff that she cares so deeply about. 

“I don’t think it’s something that had to be this way. I don’t feel like it had to come to this,” she said.

“I think it’s really important for the public to know what they’re at risk of losing by losing this facility. Hopefully with advocating and fighting for this place that we believe in, perhaps we can turn something around and make it what it used to be.” 

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