Niagara Health community engagement event gets frosty reception in Fort Erie

As senior executives with Niagara Health head out on tour to visit local communities in preparation of a reimagined health system for the region, their first stop in Fort Erie was greeted with frustration and concern.

One after another residents urged Niagara Health to keep urgent care services open in town, and in some cases even called on them to enhance what is offered, harkening back to the days of a full emergency department at Douglas Memorial Hospital.

While Niagara Health officials tried to point to the benefits of the new three-site model they’re developing–from state-of-the-art emergency care at a new Niagara South site that’s closer to Fort Erie than the current Niagara Falls hospital, to centres of excellence planned for the Welland, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines sites–residents weren’t particularly interested.

“It’s going to kill more people down here than the new hospital will save,” said resident Ernie Schwarz, suggesting the added time it takes to get to the new Niagara South site will only be worsened during the many snowstorms the town receives each year.

But Lynn Guerriero, president and CEO of Niagara Health, countered that the system’s plan is the best way to provide care to all Niagarans, those in Greater Fort Erie included, during a time when the healthcare system is significantly challenged financially and from a human resources standpoint. The COVID-19 pandemic, she said, only exacerbated staffing issues, and now organizations like Niagara Health must deal with a double whammy of fewer available health care workers, and existing workers who are opting to work less than they did years ago.

“We’re facing critical shortages of healthcare workers,” she said. “We don’t really see a time where we are fully staffed with emergency department nurses for many years.”

Niagara Health doesn’t envision all the current urgent care centre (UCC) visitors having to instead go to the new Niagara South site. Instead, they’re encouraging what Guerriero described as enhanced “comprehensive, team-based primary care” in Fort Erie. She said that’s the way many regions are moving and it’s widely considered the best model of care. Robust, team-based primary care, she said, would give residents on-demand access to much of the care they require.

“The people of Fort Erie deserve a first point of contact,” she said.

But for that to happen, physicians and other healthcare workers must buy in, and the municipality must play a role, she said. To that end, Mayor Wayne Redekop said the town has been working tirelessly to support health care in Fort Erie, mentioning millions of dollars committed to the new site and a strong recruiting push that has resulted in five new physicians setting up shop over the last four years.

“We still have over 7,000 unrostered patients,” he said, adding their only point of contact is the UCC.

And while he said the town will continue to work with Niagara Health and provincial healthcare counterparts, it will also continue to fight for local care.

“But please recognize that collaboration and cooperation does not mean acquiescence,” he said. “We’re looking for a commitment from Niagara Health and the Ministry of Health to ensure continued operation of the urgent care centre unless and until a sustainable alternative is in place.”

While the community engagement sessions are meant to answer questions and to solicit input from the public, Niagara Health does have a general plan. By 2028, that plan will see the sites in St. Catharines, Welland and the new Niagara South site acting as the three hospital sites in Niagara Region.

Each will have an emergency department (ED), including a Niagara South site with an ED three times as large as the current Niagara Falls location. Additionally, each site will be home to various centres of excellence, ranging from mental health, to stroke care, women and babies, to eye care.

“All three hospitals will work together as part of a seamless system of care,” said Angela Zangari, an executive vice president at Niagara Health.

Angela Zangari, an executive vice president at Niagara Health, answers a question at a community engagement session in Fort Erie. Credit: Luke Edwards | Fort Erie Radio

Under that system a patient could go into the Niagara South site and either get the care they need there, or be transferred to the appropriate site.

“There will be no wrong door,” Zangari said.

Construction crews broke ground on the Niagara South site last year, and Niagara Health said it’s currently securing the funding for a major redevelopment of the Welland site.

Guerreiro acknowledged the challenges of weather, especially in Fort Erie. To address that, she said Niagara Health would work with their colleagues in Niagara Emergency Medical Services to ensure there are more paramedics on duty when snowstorms hit. Any time the weather poses a challenge and medical care is required, she urged residents to call 911.

However, some residents pointed out that much like nurse and doctor shortages, there are challenges in recruiting enough paramedics, which could created staffing issues as well.

For more information on Niagara Health’s community engagement sessions, or to watch a video of the March 19 meeting, visit niagarahealth.on.ca.

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