Nurses assaulted at P.E.I.’s new mental health ER, and union head says she ‘saw it coming’

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A recent assault on two nurses by a patient in the new mental health ER at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown might have been prevented if safety concerns had been addressed before it opened, says the president of the P.E.I. Nurses Union.

Barbara Brookins said the assault occurred about two weeks ago in the assessment area of the mental health emergency department short-stay unit (EDSSU). The patient was able to get into an area where he should not have been, Brookins said.

“The nurses weren’t able to take care of themselves,” she said. “The security system was ineffective. Whether or not it went off … there was not the response that was required to assist at the time.”

One of the nurses is still off work because of the incident, Brookins said.

The P.E.I. Nurses’ Union says an attack on a nurse at the mental health and addictions emergency department at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital came after staff brought forward concerns about the unit’s safety. Barbara Brookins, president of the union, spoke to CBC P.E.I. about the incident.

The new emergency department is in the same building as Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s ER, but is a separate space for treating people who are in a mental health or addictions crisis. 

People seeking treatment for mental health or addictions still enter the hospital through the same ER as everyone else, but staff doing triage send them directly to the new mental health and addictions area to begin assessment. 

The facility has seven assessment rooms, a family room and consult rooms. The short-stay unit with beds has not yet opened. 

Assessment Room 7 sign.
People seeking treatment for mental health or addictions are sent to one of seven assessment rooms. (CBC)

Brookins said before the assessment area opened in February, nurses identified safety issues — such as security, the weight of the doors and how the doors open and close. But the issues weren’t fixed.

She also said the unit opened with only 40 per cent of staff in place.

“It wasn’t safety first here; it really wasn’t,” Brookins said. “And these issues came up and our staff addressed them and when the incident happened, it’s unfortunate that we have to say, ‘Saw it coming.'”

Are mental health ER staff working in safe conditions? An MLA wonders…

Green Party’s Matthew MacFarlane rises in the P.E.I. Legislature to ask about the safety of nurses at the province’s new mental health ER. Minister of Health and Wellness Mark McLane replies.

In a statement sent to CBC News late Tuesday night, Health P.E.I. said safety was a foremost consideration throughout the planning of the new unit.

“Health P.E.I. has equipped staff with personal alert devices to summon immediate security assistance and is adjusting door closure mechanisms,” the statement said.

The agency will continue to work to enhance safety in the new unit, the spokesperson said.

Raised in legislature

The subject came up in the P.E.I. Legislature on Tuesday. Green Party MLA Matt MacFarlane suggested Health Minister Mark McLane was “prioritizing a photo op over the safety of his staff” by opening the new ER before it was ready.

“The minister was made well aware of the safety concerns and he was well aware of the lack of staffing,” MacFarlane said. “Now we have a unit where both patients and staff are in precarious situations.”

McLane objected to the comments.

“I did not push for the opening of the EDSSU. I value the experts that work in our department every day. It’s up to those people that make those decisions,” he said. “I don’t make operational decisions for a photo op and I never will.”

McLane said he is getting positive feedback on the new ER from clients and their families who say “the privacy and focused care the new area offers is making a huge difference.”

Brookins agrees the new unit is a welcome addition to health care on P.E.I., but does think it opened before it was ready. 

“There was a physical assault and obviously some mental trauma from the incident that happened,” she said.

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