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‘Disturbing’ sign at Williams Lake ER sparks debate in legislature, investigation

Premier David Eby says ER never closed as IH investigates sources of unauthorized closure notice

A sign posted outside the emergency room of Cariboo Memorial Hospital advising people that the emergency room is closed “**unless patient is imminently dying**” has sparked an investigation into its source and a broader debate about the state of health care in British Columbia.

Interior Health is currently investigating who posted the sign.

Premier David Eby said Thursday the emergency room in Williams Lake was open for people who needed emergency care, adding that the health ministry is “looking into the posting of the sign.” He also said government is taking steps to address the issue of access to care in rural areas including recruiting international health care workers, opening a new medical school and getting people to use different resources such as pharmacists to take pressure off ER rooms.

“My expectation for every British Columbian is to get access to care when they need it,” he said. “That applies in small, rural centres in the same way as it applies in bigger centres of our province and we are taking the actions necessary to get there.”

BC United had brought up the sign during Question Period with Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson having raised the issue.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the emergency room was not closed and services continued.

“Of course, we’re reviewing how a sign was put up there, because that is very disturbing,” Dix said. “Of course, that’s very disturbing. The emergency room stayed open. It was open throughout that period, and we continue to take action working with people in Williams Lake to ensure that they have the staff necessary to provide the services that people need.”

Dix also challenged the premise of the question around the Williams Lake emergency room in responding to Shirley Bond, MLA for Prince George-Valemount, who had said that the health care system is collapsing.

“Basing your question on a sign that wasn’t accurate, wasn’t correct, in an emergency room that was still open is not, I don’t think, the correct approach. The correct approach is have a health human resources plan in place that recruits record numbers of doctors, record numbers of nurses, record numbers of health sciences professionals.”

Questions about the status of the emergency room in Williams Lake coincided with questions from BC United MLAs about emergency rooms in other smaller communities (Elkford, Smithers, Kitimat Merritt) but also larger communities (Surrey).

Dix said his government is building a second hospital in Surrey, adding that new nurses have started in Merritt. Dix also pointed to the construction of a new hospital currently underway in Terrace.

“With respect to all of these issues, we are taking action — action to recruit doctors, action to recruit nurses, action to ensure that through scope-of-practice changes, people get more and better care sooner,” he said. “It is, of course, a challenge whenever an emergency room has to close, and that’s a requirement under specific circumstances. But we are taking the actions necessary to ensure that people in every community in B.C. have the emergency care they need.”

The sign posted Monday drew the ire of local councillors, who publicly questioned why no one was notified of an ER closure.

Diane Shendruk, vice-president of clinical operations for IH, told Black Press it is always IH’s priority to let people know ahead of time of any emergency room closures, and confirmed the matter is under investigation.

Notification goes out through public bulletins sent to city councils, media and posted on the IH website and social media channels.

Shendruk confirmed they are struggling with staff issues in Williams Lake and that someone had called in sick on Monday for work at the ER, but the team worked hard to replace that individual for the shift and was successful.

Cariboo Memorial Hospital does not want to implement diversion, which means patients would be directed to go to another health centre, she said.

“We are very sorry this happened and we want to regain people’s confidence,” she said.

Shendruk confirmed she has heard from residents affected by the sign.

On Oct. 4, Williams Lake First Nation administrative officer Kourtney Cook sent an email to IHA chief executive officer Susan Brown requesting a meeting with WLFN.

“WLFN has sought to maintain a hands-off approach regarding operational matters at CMH. However, recent events, particularly the recent closure of the Emergency Room, and the manner in which it was communicated, have raised significant concerns within our community,” Cook stated in the email.

In her reply, Brown wrote: “I share your concerns and want to reassure you that the Emergency Department was never closed and we are looking into why this sign was put up.”

Cook responded with a second email stating on the evening of Oct. 2, an elderly individual was brought to the CMH ER by a WLFN community member.

“However, they were informed by a CMH nurse that “unless the patient was imminently dying, they would have to go to the Quesnel or 100 Mile House Hospital.’ Subsequently, the Elder received treatment that evening in 100 Mile House. This verbal communication aligns with the message posted on the ER website,” Cook noted.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated from the original to include information from Kourtney Cook, chief administrative officer at Williams Lake First Nation.

- With files from Monica Lamb-Yorski

READ MORE: Williams Lake ER closure Monday, Oct. 2 comes a surprise to city council