TRISH ALTASS: Doctors are leaving Summerside and Islanders need answers from government

The following was originally published as an opinion piece on Saltwire on September 21, 2021.

This summer I spent time knocking on doors and engaging with constituents at events and over the phone. By far the No. 1 concern I hear is about health care. Islanders want to know why so many doctors and other health-care professionals are choosing to leave Summerside’s hospital and clinics.

Prince County Hospital in particular has struggled in recent years to retain staff at all levels. For example, in the last sitting of the legislature it was confirmed that two general surgeons were leaving Prince County Hospital. Since then, three family doctors in the Summerside area have also given notice to their patients that they are leaving, as well as at least one specialist.

It’s important to note that none of these doctors is retiring. These are doctors who chose to practise in Summerside, who appreciate our beautiful city and wanted to be a part of and contribute to this community. They chose Summerside, and now they are making the difficult choice to uproot their lives and practices and leave.

What are the reasons for this exodus that is being felt keenly in Summerside, but is also creeping into health-care settings all across the Island? The minister seems quick to shirk any responsibility for this, instead laying blame directly on Health P.E.I. and its staff. Transparency and accountability are reduced to finger pointing and blame. None of this is helpful.

Throughout the past two years, I have called for an independent consultant with no ties to government or Health P.E.I. to engage with and face the complexity of issues impacting retention at our city’s hospital to finally get to the bottom of this. After sustained pressure, the King government finally hired an independent consultant to examine some exit interviews. His findings highlighted a concerning theme of "toxic workplaces" and "lack of strategic direction". The report also provided recommendations to be taken to improve the issues that are causing our health-care professionals to leave.

One would think that these recommendations would be clear and immediate action items for our minister to champion. Unfortunately, for three months the minister sat on the report, hiding it from Islanders. It was only when forced to release it through a freedom of information and protection of privacy (FOIPP) request did the minister show anything from the report. When he did, all the recommendations were blotted out and hidden from public view. After significant public pressure and media exposure, the minister released the report to the legislative standing committee on health and social development.

This hush-hush behaviour from the King government is simply unacceptable and falls well short of the leadership we need. Even now we are hearing crickets from the minister. This is not an issue that can be swept under the rug. Everyone I have spoken to in Summerside is aware of how this is affecting our community.

If the King government really wants to know why there are so many vacant positions at PCH, it needs to provide the space for remaining staff to also speak freely and without fear of repercussions.

Islanders want answers. They want to know that the issues causing health-care professionals to leave are being identified and addressed. This requires an honest and critical assessment, thoughtful evidence-based planning, collaboration with staff and unions, and a willingness to change structures and practices that are hindering our health-care professionals and failing Islanders. If the King government persists in taking a passive approach in its retention efforts, the revolving door of health-care professionals passing through our province will only continue to spin.

 

Trish Altass is the Green Opposition MLA for Tyne Valley-Sherbrooke. [email protected].