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Summerside mayor has 'tense and blunt' meeting with Health P.E.I. CEO over hospital

Summerside Mayor Dan Kutcher said he is looking for a firm commitment from Health P.E.I. that full service will be restored at the Prince County Hospital. So far, he hasn't been getting one.  (Tony Davis/CBC - image credit)
Summerside Mayor Dan Kutcher said he is looking for a firm commitment from Health P.E.I. that full service will be restored at the Prince County Hospital. So far, he hasn't been getting one. (Tony Davis/CBC - image credit)

The City of Summerside will hold a public town hall on the future of Prince County Hospital next Thursday, Feb. 1, and the mayor is calling on provincial Health Minister Mark McLane and the head of Health P.E.I. to attend.

In a letter to McLane, Summerside Mayor Dan Kutcher said the decision to downgrade intensive-care services at the hospital "will jeopardize the health outcomes of the citizens of Summerside, Prince County and the entire province."

He said each day the hospital operates without a fully functioning ICU, the health and lives of his residents are at risk — "a risk that I, as mayor of this city, am not prepared to accept."

In an interview with CBC News on Wednesday, Kutcher said he had talked to acting Health P.E.I. CEO Corinne Rowswell the day before.

"It was tense and blunt," he said.

"My messages have been very clear: 'We are looking for a firm commitment — not a "we hope to" or "we have a vision for" or "we support," but... specific language saying, 'We will commit to reopen the Prince County Hospital ICU and return the hospital to its full functioning capacity to ensure safe, quality health-care services are restored here.'"

Kutcher said he did not get that promise during Tuesday's discussion with Rowswell. 

Summerside Mayor Dan Kutcher says it's important to help locums and other health-care professionals get settled in the area.
Summerside Mayor Dan Kutcher says it's important to help locums and other health-care professionals get settled in the area.

An ambulance stands next to the Prince County Hospital in a file photo. Island EMS said Wednesday that it might need more resources if it's taking more patients from Summerside to Charlottetown for care. (Shane Ross/CBC)

Health P.E.I. said this month that a shortage of staff has forced it to further downgrade critical-care services at the Prince County Hospital, now affecting the progressive-care unit, which treats less serious cases than an ICU. That means even more patients will have to be transported 60 kilometres to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown until and unless more doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists can be hired for Summerside.

People are alarmed, they are concerned and they're frightened, and I think those are all fair emotions to be feeling. And I certainly join them. — Summerside Mayor Dan Kutcher

Kutcher said health officials assured him nine months ago, during a previous town-hall meeting called after ICU services were first downgraded, that restoring the intensive-care unit was a priority.

He said the city was told it would have regular updates on the plan to restore services, but those updates never happened.

In an email late Wednesday, Health P.E.I. said two ICU-level patients have been transferred from Summerside to Charlottetown for treatment since Jan 19. Five out of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital's eight ICU beds were filled Wednesday, as were seven out of eight QEH progressive-care unit beds.

A spokesperson said the progressive-care unit at the Prince County Hospital had five out of its eight beds occupied Wednesday.

"The worst case could be reducing to no PCU beds. The current situation is indicating Health P.E.I. will be able to maintain some PCU beds in the PCU unit, for less acute patients still within progressive-care level," the email said.

"The remaining beds will continue to be staffed and filled with PCH patients at different level of care."

Fire trucks acting as ambulances

The prospect of a future with even more medical transfers to Charlottetown, an hour away, is also a concern for Summerside firefighters.

Last year, Summerside's volunteer firefighters responded to nearly 70 medical calls.

Fire Chief Ron Enman said if more ambulances are tied up driving patients between Summerside and Charlottetown, his volunteers will be asked to drop everything in their own schedules even more often to respond to calls.

'The main thing is everybody got out,' says Summerside fire chief Ron Enman.
'The main thing is everybody got out,' says Summerside fire chief Ron Enman.

Summerside fire chief Ron Enman, shown in a 2019 photo, anticipates his department will have to respond to even more medical calls than it does now, if ambulances are tied up with patient transfers. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC)

Enman said firefighters are not supposed to be transferring medical patients to the hospital, but delays in Island EMS ambulance response times mean that is sometimes unavoidable.

"We had a patient fall down on Water Street and hit their head. It was potentially pretty serious, so we made the decision to transfer there.

"We had another lady that was in labour. We were very close to the hospital. EMS response time was — I think they were coming from Charlottetown, so just felt the safest thing to do was to transport."

More ambulance resources needed?

In a statement to CBC News, Island EMS said its four dedicated transfer units are used to move patients between facilities. It is "exploring" adding more resources to those non-emergency transfer units.

"The ambulance transfer units are used in non-emergency situations of patient transfer, such as moves to and from health facilities. These kinds of initiatives reduce pressure within our health care system and enable more paramedics to be on the road, providing lifesaving care and important service to Islanders," the statement said.

Kutcher said he realizes staff shortages are a tough issue to address, but he still wants the province to commit to reopen his hospital's ICU and return the hospital to its full functioning capacity.

"People are alarmed, they are concerned and they're frightened, and I think those are all fair emotions to be feeling. And I certainly join them," said Kutcher.

"I'm incredibly frustrated and quite mad, to be honest, that we are here where we are… again."

The town hall on the future of Prince County Hospital will be held Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. at Credit Union Place in Summerside.