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Closing of Port McNeill hospital over weekend prompts calls for change

“It shines a spotlight on how fragile our rural health-care system is,” says Dr. Granger Avery, who practised in the community for 40 years.
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Dr. Granger Avery was a physician in Port McNeill for decades. PNG

Port McNeill hospital is closed to admissions and emergency visits after one of its three doctors called in sick, an indication of how a B.C.-wide doctor shortage hits rural communities especially hard, says the former president of the Canadian Medical Association.

Dr. Granger Avery, the original owner of Port McNeill’s primary care clinic, said it’s been historically difficult to recruit physicians to rural practices in B.C.

“It shines a spotlight on how fragile our rural health-care system is,” said Avery, who was president of the CMA in 2016-17. “As soon as one physician gets sick, which is what’s happened this weekend, then the whole thing falls apart.”

It’s a situation being played out in other communities around the province, he said. “That fragility has been there for ages and doctors and others have worked really hard to patch it up.”

Island Health reported this week that Port McNeill Hospital’s emergency department would be closed from 7 a.m. Friday until noon Monday and no new patients would be admitted. Anyone experiencing a medical emergency was advised to call 911 or, if possible, travel to Port Hardy Hospital, about 40 kilometres away.

The health authority said it was notified Thursday that the physician scheduled to provide hospital coverage for Port McNeill Hospital this weekend would not be available and apologized. “Despite immediate and significant effort from local leadership to find alternate physician coverage, physician coverage has not been secured.”

On Saturday, Dr. Prean Armogam said he is awaiting results of a COVID test. “I felt it responsible to decline my ER shift this weekend, which prompted the ER in McNeill to do a hard closure from Friday to Monday,” he said.

Port McNeill is served by Armogam, Dr. John Fitzgerald and Dr. Anas Ahmed Toweir. Toweir is away on a course this weekend and Fitzgerald, who came out of retirement, provides office practice only.

Armogam said this would have been his sixth weekend on call since January while working five days a week doing clinics and outreach. “There is simply no physician capacity and very poor resource management,” he said.

Avery, who worked in Port McNeill for 40 years, has been suggesting since the late 1980s that doctors in the region collaborate rather than work in isolation and calling for a consolidated northern hospital to serve Port McNeill, Port Hardy and Port Alice.

He would like to see a hospital and clinic at the junction between Port Alice, Port Hardy and Port McNeill, which would put the facility about 15 kilometres away from each.

“The system has to change,” he said. “All the medical practices and the hospital care should be consolidated into one.”

He has also long advocated for integrated team-based care using nurse practitioners — who can provide care without physician supervision — and registered nurses, social workers, drug and alcohol, and mental health workers.

“If we just keep doing the same thing that we did yesterday, we’re going to see the same result as you see today,” Avery said.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com