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Community input will help shape Niagara Health transformation

Posted May 15th, 2024

Conversations in communities across Niagara over the past several weeks have given the Niagara Health team an opportunity to hear from residents from across the region. 

The turnout at our ongoing community engagement sessions about our future plans has been mixed, from packed rooms to conversations with only a handful of local participants, while others are opting to watch online and share their feedback through our website. 

It’s been heart-warming to hear the passion people have for healthcare in every community we’ve visited.  

It's important to acknowledge that not everyone universally supports our plans to focus our resources into three modern hospitals in St. Catharines, Welland and South Niagara. The emotional attachment to longstanding physical structures like those in Fort Erie and Port Colborne is palpable, making change a complex and sensitive issue. 

But despite sometimes differing viewpoints, a common theme has emerged — Niagara residents care deeply about healthcare and they want to find solutions to overcome some of the big challenges we face. Comprehensive, team-based primary care, community-based services and collaboration with municipal and regional government leadership are essential to improving the healthcare system. 

Hospitals have and will always be a safety net, however, they have now become the first point of contact for too many, requiring hospitals to shoulder the responsibility for filling gaps in primary and community care. This poses challenges to our core functions, particularly in providing emergency and acute care, sometimes impacting the delivery of high-quality hospital care.  

Throughout our recent community engagement sessions, we’ve received valuable feedback from concerned residents on several key topics. These include discussions on Emergency Department (ED) wait times and anticipated improvements under our new model, the state of mental health care in Niagara, and the seamless delivery of care across three hospital sites in distinct communities. 

The new South Niagara Hospital will have an expanded ED that can accommodate twice the patient volumes than the current Niagara Falls ED. The three-site hospital model will bring our ED trained staff together to deliver faster and more efficient emergency services, reducing wait times. Patients will have access to a full suite of hospital services and there will be no wrong door. 

In Niagara, we are seeing a notable increase in mental health patients accessing our EDs. In the past decade, we’ve seen a 33-per-cent increase in individuals seeking mental health care. Niagara Health manages the highest mental health and addictions patient volume among all large community hospitals in Ontario, serving approximately 9,000 patients a year. There are other providers who would be better suited to help many of these patients in the community but those services are experiencing the same human resource shortages that we are.  

Concentrating our hospital resources at three cornerstone hospitals is not just a strategic decision but a necessity to deal with ongoing health human resource shortages. By focusing our expertise and resources, we will optimize the delivery of specialized, high-quality care that meets the healthcare needs of our community. Equally important is creating a work environment that attracts and retains new doctors and other healthcare providers, offering them state-of-the-art equipment and fostering collaborative teams. This approach not only enhances the quality of care but also reflects the modern healthcare environment that all health professionals seek — a place where they can thrive, innovate, and deliver the best possible outcomes for patients. 

We want to acknowledge the challenging nature of the changes ahead. While this transformation may not be easy, we believe it is the right model for the future and necessary to address the ongoing challenges in our healthcare system. We are grateful for the community's engagement and are committed to using the next five years to build and strengthen partnerships, develop a strong and sustainable hospital system while supporting improved comprehensive, team-based primary care and community care services.  

Lynn Guerriero is president and CEO of Niagara Health. Heather Paterson is Executive Vice-President of Clinical Operations and Dr. Satish Chawla is Interim Chief of Staff and Executive Vice-President, Medical. 

Niagara Health System