/HHHS planning around physician and nurse shortage 

HHHS planning around physician and nurse shortage 

By Sue Tiffin

The following are brief reports of items discussed during a March 24 virtual meeting of the Haliburton Highlands Health Services board.  

HHHS has continued to face nursing and physician staff shortages in the Haliburton emergency department. 

“HHHS has been able to keep the emergency departments open and operating thanks to the continued dedication and commitment shown by our acute care teams. Whether it has been coming in early for shifts, staying late, picking up extra shifts and hours, or adapting their schedules to cover gaps – they have been resolute,” said Carolyn Plummer, CEO and president.

HHHS is relying on agency nursing staff and the Health Force Ontario and ED Locum program that provides support for hospitals across the province facing physician shortages to fill gaps, said Plummer, noting “the demand for coverage from that program has pretty much doubled in the past year and because of that there is ongoing concern that the program will not necessarily be able to cover or meet all of the demands, so we are trying to prepare for that, certainly trying to prevent it from happening but preparing for a crisis situation in which we encounter a shift where we may not have a physician or may not be able to fill a physician’s shift.”

Plummer said HHHS has developed a protocol to help guide what would happen in case of a temporary closure. She said there is hope that doesn’t happen and that HHHS is taking steps to prevent it, but there could be unforeseen circumstances in which coverage can’t happen and the emergency department doors need to be closed for a short period of time.  

Retention incentive advocacy

Plummer spoke to the provincial government’s March 7 announcement that it will spend $763 million to provide nurses with a $5,000 lump sum retention incentive.

“While we are grateful for this measure that recognizes the crucial importance of nursing staff to our operations and the healthcare system as a whole, HHHS also appreciates the Ontario Hospital Association’s request that the province recognize the contributions of all healthcare workers by expanding the scope of the payments,” said Plummer. “HHHS values all members of our team, and we would like to be able to support and retain them.”

‘Cautious approach’ in lifting restrictions 

Plummer said HHHS is maintaining all COVID-19-related enhanced infection prevention measures including screening for symptoms and masking until the expiry of all remaining measures, directives and orders for high-risk settings on April 27. A vaccination policy is still in place for all staff, though a directive for staff to receive a third, or booster, dose of vaccine has been removed as of March 14 following the lifting of a directive from the Ministry of Long-Term Care. 

Plummer said HHHS was keeping an eye on the impact on community spread of COVID-19 after provincial restrictions were lifted, as well as the impact of March Break and increased travel.  

“We want to give sufficient time to see the effects of those two things before we make a decision to begin lifting any restrictions or changes of some of the protocols we have in place,” she said.

Testing for the Community Assessment Centre has moved from the trailer in the parking lot of the Haliburton Family Medical Centre to the centre itself as of March 28.

Anyone who is immunocompromised OR unvaccinated and pregnant OR unvaccinated and 50 years of age or older should contact the assessment centre as soon as they start to feel unwell with COVID or cold-and-flu-like symptoms. The centre can be reached at 705-457-1212.

HHHS plans for balanced finances

 While the HHHS finance committee had previously been concerned about cash flow as funds were not coming through in the way of COVID-19 reimbursement from the government, Irene O’Dell, speaking for the finance committee, said HHHS had at this point received all eligible reimbursements up to Sept. 2021.

“We’re no longer in a cash flow shortage situation as we were previously,” she said.

HHHS is continuing to run an operational deficit, and as of Jan. 31 that deficit was $536,000, half of which O’Dell said was related to lost revenues due to COVID, the remaining due to increased compensation, services and inflationary pressures for food and utilities.

“HHHS advocacy for one-time funding to support these pressures has resulted in receipt of a letter from Ontario Health for one-time funding to address current year operating pressures,” said Plummer. “This timely funding presents a strong opportunity for HHHS to close the fiscal year in a balanced operating position.”