Muskoka officials slow hospital plans after doctors' outcry

Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare, which operates hospitals in the towns of Huntsville and Bracebridge, has been working on what it calls a capital redevelopment of its facilities. The organization says it wants to build new hospitals to replace the existing ones. (CBC - image credit)
Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare, which operates hospitals in the towns of Huntsville and Bracebridge, has been working on what it calls a capital redevelopment of its facilities. The organization says it wants to build new hospitals to replace the existing ones. (CBC - image credit)

After an outcry from doctors, a Muskoka region health care organization says it will consult more with the community before it submits a final plan  to the province  to redevelop its two hospital sites.

Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare, which operates hospitals in the towns of Huntsville and Bracebridge, has been working on what it calls a capital redevelopment of its facilities. The organization says it wants to build new hospitals to replace the existing ones.

In a statement on Monday, the organization said it wishes to clarify a decision made by its board on July 2 about the redevelopment that may have caused misunderstanding. It said the board granted permission to consultants to begin "detailed planning" for the redevelopment, but that decision doesn't mean there won't be more consultation.

"That means the plan is still being worked on," the statement reads.

The clarification comes after 51 doctors in South Muskoka signed a July 1 letter that criticized plans to redevelop the two hospitals.

The doctors say current plans would reduce hospital beds in Bracebridge, while increasing them in Huntsville. It would also force patients to travel between the two hospitals — Huntsville District Memorial Hospital Site and the South Muskoka Memorial Hospital Site, they say.

"This decision will impact patient care in Muskoka for generations to come," the letter says.

Muskoka hospitals 1
Muskoka hospitals 1

A hospital employee is pictured here pushing a bed in a hallway. (CBC)

In the letter, the doctors said they are concerned about patient transportation, acute care bed capacity and the long-term viability of the redeveloped Bracebridge site.

"We have been disappointed with the redevelopment process," the letter reads. "The poor communication and lack of transparency has fostered a toxic environment of widespread distrust and frustration, both publicly and within Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare."

The health organization says of the redevelopment: "The main goal is to improve local healthcare by making two bigger hospitals that offer more services than they do now."

Alasdair Smith, vice-president of corporate services for Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare, said consultation is continuing.

"We're going to continue discussions not only with our consultants, but with the community and all the stakeholders, including physicians, patients, our partners in the community, to make sure that the model we are putting forward includes all the input possible," Smith said.

"The delivery of health care is going to change in the next 10 years," he said. "We're going to have to keep talking with people, keep exploring what's going to happen in terms of changes around us and continually evolve the details. It does not end here.

New Brunswick has grappled with an ongoing doctor shortage for years.
New Brunswick has grappled with an ongoing doctor shortage for years.

Fifty-one doctors in South Muskoka signed a July 1 letter that criticized plans to redevelop the two hospitals. The doctors say current plans would reduce hospital beds in Bracebridge, while increasing them in Huntsville. It would also force patients to travel between the two hospitals — Huntsville District Memorial Hospital Site and the South Muskoka Memorial Hospital Site. (Shutterstock)

Dr. Shannon Lees, a family doctor in Bracebridge, said the majority of doctors from South Muskoka believe they are not going to get a hospital that will meet the needs of the community in the future.

Lees said they are particularly concerned about the lack of adequate beds to serve South Muskoka and the need to transport the sickest patients from the emergency room in Bracebridge to Huntsville. She said doctors think the plan is "doomed to fail" in its current form.

"It increases mortality when you're transporting people who are very sick, who may be on ventilation. That is a recipe for having poor outcomes. And so, we have deep concerns about that. It's not being transferred from one side of the city to another side of the city. It's being transferred through Northern Ontario on highways with moose and deer and snowstorms. It's not a straightforward transfer process," Lees said.

Lees said doctors are also concerned about retention.

"Finding doctors who want to work in such a small hospital is going to be challenging. Finding emergency doctors who want in emergency departments where they have to wait for their patients to be transported to the next town over could be a challenge," Lees said.

Organization has secured $967M for redevelopment

On its website, Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare says it has secured $967 million for the project. The Ontario government is funding 90 per cent of the construction costs, or $742 million.

Local communities are contributing $225 million, which will cover 10 per cent of the construction costs plus additional expenses for furniture, fixtures, equipment, and infrastructure, such as parking lots.

Dr. John Simpson, director and chief of emergency medicine at Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare, said the new proposal is one that the province will approve.

"The total number of beds is not just at one site. It's across the two sites. When we look at the model as a Muskoka model, then the number of beds is actually increasing," Simpson said.

Hannah Jensen, spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones, said in a statement on Monday that planning is ongoing.

"We understand that Muskoka Algonquin Health Centre (MHAC) is in their detailed planning phase and consulting with their community and local partners to ensure they are creating stable, consistent and connected care in the region," Jensen said.

"We look forward to MHAC's submission of their final plan and we will continue to work together to ensure access to care in the region for years to come."