Longstanding staff shortages in rural emergency rooms are continuing to create problems, with some being forced to close or cut their hours.

Bonnie Nunn has been living in Treherne, MB. since 1974. She says she's seen the local hospital's staffing shortages increase over the last few years.

"I'm really angry, angry at everything. I don't think enough thought went into this," she said. I'm not angry at nurses. They need time off too."

Nunn said a family member of hers recently needed emergency treatment and had to be taken to Portage la Prairie, about 45 minutes away, because the Treherne emergency department was closed due to a lack of staff.

"If you need immediate attention, you know, it's far too long," said Nunn.

In a news release from Prairie Mountain Health Region on Thursday, the health provider announced several changes to emergency room hours in western Manitoba.

In Treherne and Melita, emergency department and hospital admissions have been temporarily suspended.

Emergency departments in Souris and Grandview are also reducing hours of operation and closing on certain days,

"These challenges, resulting from a combination of vacancies, staff leaves, and vacations, have been discussed with physician leadership and staff at the affected sites as well as with key community stakeholders," read the release from Prairie Mountain Health Region.

In a statement to CTV News, the Manitoba Nurses Union said the closures affect other emergency rooms in the province.

"This adds an additional level of strain to both the frontline and patients outside of the city limits. It means that people are having to travel farther to get the care they need and adds an extra element of pressure to other parts of the hospital," read the statement.

ADDRESSING THE ISSUE

Dr. David Cram, a doctor in Souris who also sits on the provincial and National Medical Association board, says his emergency room recently had to close when he attended a conference while another colleague was away.

"When we were short of physicians, and then the stress of COVID has come along, you can imagine if one doctor leaves or relocates for some reason, which is what happened to us, or one position becomes ill, or one takes well deserved holidays, and literally you're left with so few physicians, you have to shut it down," explained Cram.

Dr. Cram said the problem extends beyond the prairie mountain health region, with rural emergency room staffing being an issue across Canada,

"I think clearly there needs to be a human health resource plan for Manitoba and all Canada for that matter. I know the Canadian Medical Association is working on that."

Cram added trying new health models, like creating a rural doctor rotation attractive to younger physicians, might also help in the future.

"Get three or four doctors together, and they can agree to come out one week a month to a rural system and come for a week, and there will be some continuity of care."

A sentiment the Manitoba Nurses Union echoes.

"With vacancy rates as high as they are and even higher in certain areas of rural Manitoba, we are past due addressing ways to retain experienced nurses and recruit new hires," read part of a statement from the MNU. "It's time that we look for more creative ways to entice our experienced nurses to stay in the profession and new nurses to become a part of the public system."

The Manitoba Nurses Union says there are currently 2,497 nursing vacancies in Manitoba right now, about 20 per cent of the total available positions.

In a statement from the province, a spokesperson said regional health authorities are working to retain health care staff.

"Rural regional health authorities continue to take many measures to recruit and retain health care staff to rural regions. Longstanding staffing challenges and physician availability in less populated areas of the province have been an ongoing challenge for decades," read the statement in part.

The spokesperson noted the province continues to invest in health care staffing across Manitoba, including a plan to add close to 400 new nursing education seats and the addition of 35 paramedics.