Horizon trying again to restore 24/7 service at Sussex Health Centre

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Horizon Health Network is working on a new project, aimed at returning to 24/7 emergency department hours at the Sussex Health Centre, that involves bringing in a variety of health-care professionals.

Dr. Serge Melanson, Horizon’s executive clinical and academic head of emergency care, said that includes nurse practitioners, respiratory therapists and advanced care paramedics.

Respiratory therapists focus primarily on airway management and breathing emergencies, he said. Advanced care paramedics are paramedics with special training in advanced airway management, vascular access, needle thoracostomy and electrical therapy, according to a news release from Horizon.

“The physician group that we have been depending on very heavily … are becoming tired and burned out because they’re not only covering the Sussex emerge department, but also the Saint John Regional Hospital, St. [Joseph’s] and Charlotte County,” he said.

“They’re stretched very thin, so we think actually by adding in the health-care professionals to the mix, we’re going to be able to get that much closer to scaling back to 24/7 service.”

A smiling man in a suit standing outside
Dr. Serge Melanson, with Horizon Health Network, says the initiative at Sussex Health Centre will add other health professionals into the mix to help take some strain off of doctors. (Submitted by Dr. Serge Melanson)

A doctor shortage forced the overnight closure of the Sussex ER in September 2022. At the time, Horizon’s CEO said she hoped the reduction in hours would last “less than a year.” It’s closed daily from 8:30 p.m. until 7:30 a.m.

A spokesperson for Horizon said in an email that the timeline to restore 24/7 service in Sussex’s emergency department would “depend on the success of these pilot projects and ongoing physician recruitment.”

Melanson said the Greater Saint John and Sussex areas, also known as Zone 2, are still have eight full-time physician vacancies. But he said at least three nurse practitioners have been brought in, four new respiratory therapists were hired and nine advanced care paramedics have “lended themselves to help out with this trial.”

Sussex Mayor Marc Thorne said he found out a couple of months ago about the decision to bring in a variety of health-care professionals. 

He said at first he was concerned that the pilot could become “the norm” and Horizon wouldn’t be working to recruit physicians as aggressively. But he said he has since been assured by Horizon that recruitment efforts for physicians will not be reduced.

An unsmiling man standing outside wearing a Carhartt jacket
Sussex Mayor Marc Thorne says he hasn’t been given a timeline for a return to round-the-clock ER service ‘because it’s entirely dependent on the ability to recruit in, and and no one can predict when they’ll reach the levels that they want.’ (Gary Moore/CBC)

Thorne said he hasn’t been given a timeline for returning to 24/7 service either “because it’s entirely dependent on the ability to recruit in and and no one can predict when they’ll reach the levels that they want.”

He said he also isn’t certain whether the new model will allow the health centre to open 24/7 or if it will simply improve the current opening hours. 

Thorne said he knows Horizon is working hard to get the emergency department back to 24/7 service, but he also acknowledged the network is frustrated at the lack of available doctors that are needed to take that step.

Melanson said four physician-assistant positions have also been approved by the Department of Health, and plans are in the works to recruit for these spots.

Thorne said like nurse practitioners, physician assistants also offer a valuable skill set to relieve pressure on emergency room doctors. 

“This, again, puts a professional in place that can deal with the patients who are less critica,l and either bring them to a stable condition or treat them,” said Thorne.

“So it’s good news. But again, as with any other health-care professional that could be working in the emergency department, they are no replacement for a physician — they’re enhancement.”

According to the news release from Horizon, the network is also establishing a virtual clinical support model for the emergency department that would allow the Sussex team to connect with an emergency room physician when one is not available at the health centre.

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