Hospital hot potato
It’s ironic that the possibility of building a hospital on the doorstep of the Gatineau Hills – a place that’s sorely in need of more health services and facilities – has been greeted with such controversy.
Chelsea Mayor Pierre Guènard came out swinging against the idea last month, as did several Gatineau business groups. But the controversy isn’t unwarranted, and it’s more than just Chelsea playing the NIMBY game.
The rumoured Hautes-Plaines mega-hospital location is a tough one. But I see two forces clashing against each other whenever the topic is brought up: the health of people versus the health of the environment.
First, the environment.
Building a 600-bed, three-million-square-foot, $2.5 billion hospital near the end of Boulevard de la Technologie in the Hautes-Plaines area of Gatineau directly next to a sensitive, undeveloped area isn’t a good idea during the throes of a climate crisis.
The National Capital Commission identified the Chelsea Creek area – the actual creek, not the Chelsea centre village housing development named after it – as an ecological corridor for the Gatineau Park. Eco corridors boost the park’s biodiversity by allowing animals to travel in and out of the park without coming too close to humans.
The creek itself is a sensitive habitat. In 2020, an Action Chelsea for the Respect of the Environment survey found vulnerable and protected freshwater mussels in the creek.
Trees are literally the greenest way to capture carbon dioxide. So cutting down trees and paving fields to build a huge hospital – and all the periphery health services and residences for staff around the hospital – doesn’t make sense when greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced.
Now, the people.
The Gatineau Hills population is growing and aging. Those new residents and seniors deserve access to health services on par with large cities without having to drive to Ottawa. A hospital in Hautes-Plaines would mean a shorter drive or ambulance ride to a hospital for people who live up the line.
But building this massive hospital seems like Quebec is putting the cart before the horse. Provincial health infrastructure is struggling to find staffing as it is. The Pontiac Hospital in Shawville cited a nursing shortage when it announced the temporary closure of its obstetrics department in 2020. It’s still closed two years later.
A nursing shortage also forced the Gatineau Hospital to close its emergency room in June 2021, which put a strain on the Wakefield Hospital’s ER.
So who will staff this hospital when it’s opened?
Without staff, hospitals, CLSCs, and CHSLDs are just buildings. Quebec has about 10 years before the regional hospital opens to figure out how to train, retain, and attract doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to the Outaouais.
In March, Quebec announced $8.9 billion to restore its healthcare system through 2027, which includes plans to increase full-time hospital staff with salary increases and other incentives such as evening, night, and weekend bonuses, staff attraction and retention bonuses, and more.
I don’t envy the Quebec health officials who must make this difficult choice. Time will tell if the $8.9 billion healthcare investment was enough when those hospital doors finally open.