CKHA challenged to manage ERs without closures

An ambulance pulls into the Emergency Department at the CKHA in Chatham. (File photo by Matt Weverink)

The two hospitals in Chatham-Kent have received provincial cash to continue their offload nursing program.

The province announced almost $7.1 million last week to hire additional nurses and health care workers including paramedics, respiratory therapists and physician assistants, who are dedicated to offloading ambulance patients to receive care in emergency departments (ED).

President and CEO Lori Marshall said Chatham-Kent Health Alliance (CKHA) is still working through the details of the announcement with EMS and the municipality before reimplementing or revamping the program.

“Having staff physically available to support offload is very important and is a key element to allowing EMS crews to be able to return back out into the field and be available to the community,” said Marshall.

Eligibility for the Dedicated Offload Nurses Program funding was expanded in January to include paramedics, community paramedics, respiratory therapists, and physician assistants, in addition to nurses.

In 2021, the Dedicated Offload Nurses Program helped increased ambulance availability by close to 600,000 hours, which equates to over 68 ambulances returned to service to support municipalities across Ontario, according to the provincial government.

“This investment is key to providing individuals with the necessary healthcare where and when they need it,” said Trevor Jones, MPP for Chatham-Kent-Leamington. “This will also ensure that healthcare providers have more resources in order to better serve the residents in the region.”

Meanwhile, Caen Suni, Vice President of Clinical Programs and Operations at CKHA, said the hospital group has a plan in place just in case a local emergency department has to close because of a staffing shortage, but quickly added that hasn’t happened, is not anticipated to happen at this time, and the plan has been “set aside.”

“We’re working hard to try to manage within our own resources to continue to provide that care. Our hospital actually fares better in terms of patients that aren’t admitted. Persons that are coming in to get care receive their care and go home without being admitted into the hospital,” Suni said.

Suni said emergency department wait times at CKHA are lower than the current provincial average of 18.8 hours and are at under 12 hours locally.

Suni also said the Chatham-Kent hospitals currently have 22 Alternate Level Care (ALC) patients, patients who occupy a hospital bed but are not sick enough to remain in the hospital, and added 11 of them are waiting for long-term care. Suni added the ALC patient number was 40 about 10 days ago and on any given day about a third to a half of the local ALC patients are waiting for long-term care.

The emergency department entrance in Wallaceburg is set to open sometime this month, according to CKHA Board of Directors Chair Alan Wildeman.

Vice President of Transition and Chief Nursing Executive Meredith Whitehead said the hiring spree at CKHA continues and some key fulltime positions have already been hired.