Health P.E.I. leadership has told the East Prince Medical Staff Association the plan is to get "a fully functional" intensive care unit back at Prince County Hospital, says Dr. Steven MacNeill.
"That's an absolute necessity. There can be no other ultimate goal," said MacNeill, who is a member of the East Prince Medical Staff Association.
The group made a presentation at a legislative standing committee meeting in Summerside on Wednesday night.
Green MLA Peter Bevan-Baker was looking for information about discussions between the association and Health P.E.I. officials about the future of the Prince County Hospital.
About 120 people attended the committee meeting at Credit Union Place in Summerside. (Tony Davis/CBC)
In discussing those meetings McNeill, who has worked at the Prince County Hospital as an emergency room physician since 2002, said there are several challenges to overcome.
"We feel the current staffing shortages at PCH have reached a point that make them almost insurmountable to recover from, and if allowed to continue and worsen will affect our ability to maintain acute care at that hospital," MacNeill said.
"This physician staffing crisis is felt most in the departments of internal medicine, family medicine, anesthesia and general surgery ... We're also desperately short for critical care nurses and respiratory therapists. As a result our ICU is now a limited progressive care unit."
He added chronic short staffing issues are affecting hospitals across the country.
Limited capacity for critically-ill patients
In January, Health P.E.I. cited staff shortages as the reason behind reducing the number of patients who could be cared for at Prince County Hospital's progressive care unit, cutting the number of beds from eight to four.
If Summerside has more than four patients needing critical care at any one time, they must be transferred to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown.
"The QEH has limited capacity to accept these critically-ill patients and so more and more will be laid in the Prince County Hospital emergency department for long periods awaiting an available ICU bed. These delays increase risk to every patient in the emergency department," MacNeill said.
The progressive-care unit was what remained after the hospital lost its intensive-care unit in mid-2023, with Health P.E.I. saying it didn't have enough medical specialists to staff an ICU there.
The East Prince Medical Staff Association declared an emergency at Prince County Hospital in an open letter signed by 42 doctors last month.
"The aim of this letter, and our ongoing advocacy efforts, is to encourage urgent action and collaboration from our leaders, support our colleagues across professions and prevent the further loss of physicians and staff," said Dr. Daniel Albrechtson, who also presented on behalf of the association.
Another concern with staffing is the inability to have round-the-clock respiratory care. Pediatric patients may have to be transferred to other hospitals off Island, MacNeill said.
"Without an available ICU at PCH we cannot safely do elective surgeries on patients who are more medically complex and therefore might require ICU care post operatively. Even attempting to perform emergency surgeries will have increased risk. This will result in more local patients needing to have their surgeries done at QEH, increasing wait times for surgeries for everyone on P.E.I.," MacNeill said.
Prince County Hosptial lost its intensive-care unit in mid-2023. (Steve Bruce/CBC)
But he said the association is encouraged by action taken recently by the government.
"Health P.E.I. established an emergency operations committee regarding critical care at PCH," Albrechtson said, to the room of about 120 people.
"There has been more collaboration and communication between Health P.E.I. leadership and our frontline physicians. In order for our critical care services to be established to an appropriate standard these efforts need to continue."
In terms of recruitment, Albrechtson wants to see the province encourage more physician-to-physician recruiting, he said.
"As we have heard, there are physicians as well as trainees who have clear interest in coming to practice in P.E.I. How could our physicians and communities become part of the solution here?" Albrechtson said.
"What would it look like if every potential recruit who came to our city met with their fellow professionals but also with motivated community members from the city of Summerside or the PCH Foundation."
The association has been in contact with the province's recruitment team and a meeting has been set to discuss how physicians can help, MacNeill said.
'I'm eternally optimistic,' says Summerside Mayor Dan Kutcher. (Tony Davis/CBC)
There is a school of thought that having difficult conversations around health care could scare potential doctors away, said Summerside Mayor Dan Kutcher.
"I think it's really important for us to be open, be transparent. Have honest conversations," said Kutcher.
Kutcher has close family members working in the health-care system in Summerside. His wife is the head of the pediatrics department at the Prince County Hospital, his brother is a hospitalist and family physician at the PCH, and his sister-in-law is head of geriatrics for Prince Edward Island. Kutcher's wife and brother were two of the 42 physicians who signed the letter declaring an emergency at the hospital.
"I'm eternally optimistic," he said.
"By having these conversations and bringing this information forward and having the opportunity to have residents to come and speak is giving leadership the opportunity to think about how they are responding."
Kuther has been pushing the issue around trimmed services at PCH. Last week he hosted a town hall meeting on issues concerning the hospital that hundreds attended.