Hundreds of people crowded into a conference room at Credit Union Place Thursday to express concerns — and anger — about recent cuts to Prince County Hospital in Summerside.
As dozens more stood in the hallway outside because the room was so packed, the arrival of Health Minister Mark McLane was greeted with chants of "PCH! PCH!"
Summerside Mayor Dan Kutcher organized the session in light of Health P.E.I.'s decision to downgrade intensive-care services at the hospital.
"This decision has people scared, upset and, to be frank, steaming mad," he told the crowd at the beginning of Thursday's town hall. "Critical care is critical to the hospital, and the hospital is critical to our communities.
"This is about more than just critical-care services. This is about protecting all services at the Prince County Hospital."
McLane, Health P.E.I. interim CEO Corinne Rowswell and Health P.E.I. chief medical officer Katherine McNally were in attendance to respond to the public's concerns.
Summerside Mayor Dan Kutcher says people in the community are 'scared, upset and, to be frank, steaming mad,' about cuts to services at the PCH. (Sheehan Desjardins/CBC)
McLane began his remarks at the town hall by making a commitment to the hospital.
"There is no plan to reduce services at the PCH. We are hearing words like 'cuts,' 'it's part of the plan,' etc. Those words or phrases have never been spoken in any meeting that I've participated in," said the minister, who has been in his job for eight months.
"There is simply no possible path forward to deliver health care on P.E.I. without a strong and vibrant PCH."
McLane also pointed out that the budget for the Prince County Hospital had grown from $190 million in 2021 to "north of $219 million" this year.
Patients transferred to QEH
Earlier this month, 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, an hour's drive away.
From left, Health P.E.I. CMO Dr. Katherine McNally, Health Minister Mark McLane and Health P.E.I. interim CEO Corinne Rowswell sit at the head table at the town hall Thursday night. The room was so full that some people were invited to sit on the edge of the podium because there weren't enough chairs. (Sheehan Desjardins/CBC)
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.
Fear, anger and a sense of mistrust in Health P.E.I. and the government were palpable through questions and anecdotes shared by those in attendance:
Vanda DesRoches, who said she had worked in critical care at PCH for 30 years, wanted to know if Health P.E.I. is listening to staff when they ask for help. "How are you going to keep them from being overworked like they were for years?" she asked the panel about recruitment efforts for new physicians and workers.
Another nurse who works in the progressive-care unit at the hospital questioned how long it would take to recruit doctors, saying her unit has a 73 per cent vacancy rate. "We are drowning. How are you going to retain us?" Shayna Conway asked.
Kendra Gunn of Summerside said it's "terrifying" that there's only one functioning intensive-care unit in the province, and drew loud applause when she asked why doctors and nurses aren't sent from Charlottetown to Summerside to help out at PCH, rather than having seriously ill patients sent to Charlottetown.
A former doctor from Mexico who identified herself only as Karen said she is now working as an LPN at the Summerside hospital. She asked why the health agency isn't working with foreign-trained professionals already on the Island who want to work in their field, rather than striving to bring in new people in the midst of a housing crisis.
Darren MacKinnon, the deputy mayor of O'Leary, asked how critical-care transportation from West Prince to Charlottetown can be sustained given the shortage of paramedics on the Island in recent years. "There was ugly words thrown out earlier in the evening like mortality; that's going to happen," he warned, saying his son was in a severe accident three years ago and might not have survived were it not for the care he received at PCH.
Tignish Mayor Allan McInnis said Health P.E.I. managers should be allowed to do their jobs without interference from McLane and Premier Dennis King, a remark that received huge applause from the audience. "I suggest ... stand back, let your professionals do the work, try to learn from them and not try and do the job that you're not qualified to do," McInnis said.
Residents of Summerside and the surrounding area were lined up out the door of the Credit Union Place conference room Thursday night as a town hall began on the state of health care at Prince Country Hospital. (Sheehan Desjardins/CBC)
Recruiting and retention
Both McLane and Rowswell gave details of Health P.E.I.'s physician recruitment efforts in recent months and assured the crowd that those efforts will eventually begin to relieve the pressures on the PCH.
"As much as we recruit, we also need to do everything we can to retain our staff. We know that a positive patient experience is having staff who are well and able to practise to the max of their scope," Rowswell said to a round of applause from the crowd.
The crowd at the town hall gives PCH staff in attendance a standing ovation. (Sheehan Desjardins/CBC)
"We find ourselves here today to ensure that we release that pressure a little bit. We have no intention of making this a permanent situation."
McLane also spoke on retention, saying: "We have been asking a lot from our health-care team here at PCH, and they have been absolutely incredible.
"But we are burning people out. Some are basically just working and sleeping. One of those was actually the flower girl at my wedding. That's not right. That's not safe."
Summerside's Prince County Hospital had eight progressive-care unit beds at the beginning of January, but just four are operational due to a shortage of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists. (Steve Bruce/CBC)
Derek Bondt, vice-president of the Prince County Hospital Foundation, served as the moderator for the event.
"It's clear from the response tonight that the community is very concerned about the future of the PCH. It's unfortunate that it has come to this point," he said.
Bondt at one point asked McLane and Rowswell if they would commit to no further reductions in the hospital's services and make efforts to bring back a full complement of services and staff. "Absolutely yes," McLane replied, with Rowswell adding, "Absolutely — and expansion and growth."
While Kutcher was pleased to hear that commitment, the mayor said at the end of the evening that he hadn't heard accountability from the panel or a promise to work openly on a plan with the hospital's staff.
"I said at the beginning I was [going] to listen for a few commitments. I didn't hear those commitments tonight."
The town hall was streamed live on the City of Summerside's Facebook page. At 7:30 p.m., Kutcher noted that 1,500 viewers were watching the event that way, on top of the hundreds of people in the room.