WINNIPEG -- People in Roblin, Man., working to help fill vacancies to keep their hospital’s lab running are expressing frustration and concern over the response from health officials.

Last week, Shared Health announced diagnostic services in the area will be temporarily consolidated about a thirty-minute drive south of the community, in Russell, Man.

Vacancies elsewhere in the region mean people living in Roblin are not only about to lose lab and x-ray services – but emergency room services will also be temporarily suspended as of 4 p.m. Friday.

“For our seniors, for vulnerable people in our community, for the strong Métis population that we have north of Roblin, removing the ER makes for some of those people over an hour’s worth of highway travel in order to see an ER,” said Jana Knight, a resident and business owner in Roblin.

Retirements, resignations and maternity leaves prompted Shared Health to move lab technologists from Roblin to Russell Health Centre to fill staffing shortages in the region.

Bob Moroz, president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care professionals, the union representing those workers, said the decision will affect both their members who have to drive longer to get to work and people living in the community of Roblin and surrounding area.

“There’s not an emergency department in the province that can operate without appropriate diagnostic services,” said Moroz.

The Roblin and District Health Centre has a working lab, staff to run it and four doctors stationed in the community of 1,600 people. 

Petr Kresta, chief operating officer of diagnostic services for Shared Health, said in an interview that services are being consolidated in Russell, partly because the hospital in that community serves more people.

Kresta said recruitment is ongoing with a focus on filling job vacancies in Russell, first.

“At this point, we don’t have an accurate projection for when we will find a sufficient number of staff who are able and willing to work in all of the facilities in that geographic area,” said Kresta. “We can’t provide a timeframe for how long the suspension will be.”

“As soon as we have that done, or, to a level that is sufficient to operate safely then we will continue to post and fill vacancies, elsewhere.”

Volunteers with the Roblin and District clinic board – which has been heavily involved in recruiting physicians to the community, who also work in the ER – thought they’d found a solution to the problem. They identified a lab technologist and x-ray technician willing to work in Roblin, but clinic board president Sean Keeler said the community was told by health officials if the workers are hired, they’d likely be stationed elsewhere.

“It sounded more like if they get applicants, they’re going to decide where to disperse them,” said Keeler. “It’s very frustrating. We’re out there trying as hard as we can to staff our facility and you think you’re making headway and it’s thrown back at you. And then you’re back to square one again.”

Community members have expressed concerns about the impact on people who may now need to be rushed to the ER in surrounding communities.

Prairie Mountain Health CEO Penny Gilson is urging people not to let that be a barrier in a life or death situation.

“We very much encourage that if you’re having a true emergency, call 911,” said Gilson. “We’ve heard some concerns through the community about the costs, of course, of ambulance services but they have been significantly reduced.”

Gilson also said more life-saving services can now be performed in ambulances. 

People in the community are concerned if the suspension of services drags on, they may lose their doctors.

“And I think something like taking the ER away makes those people consider is this a viable place for me to retire? Is this a viable place for me to raise my kids?” said Knight.

Officials said some lab work will continue to be performed in Roblin, with analysis taking place off-site. That’s little comfort to residents who worry about how long the suspension will last.

Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen said in a statement the service interruption is only temporary.

Friesen said providing emergency services without diagnostic support isn’t safe for patients and added officials are working as quickly as possible to reinstate services.