As emergency room closures and staff shortages plague hospitals throughout the province, including this week’s nine hour closure of the Nicola Valley Hospital’s ER, Interior Health is looking to recruit new staff and raise awareness of the cause behind the service disruptions. The Herald spoke to senior members of Interior Health’s corporate and clinical operations team regarding the closures, recruitment efforts, and rural healthcare.

The Nicola Valley Hospital’s emergency room was closed from 4:00PM on December 19 to 1:00AM on December 20 due to limited physician availability, a common occurrence in rural emergency rooms across the province. Staff shortages currently plague a number of industries, and healthcare is no exception. Interior Health looks to promote the appeals or working rurally in a number of ways.

“We have a recruitment service that we work with inside of Interior Health, we do digital and print advertising in national and regional nursing publications, and we do media relations to try and get the word out about how great Merritt is, and we do social media promotions,” said Lisa Zetes, executive director of clinical operations.

“We make our managers the point person, so if someone is interested in what it is like to work in a more rural community, which, personally, I think is much more fun, we have the ability to then have our manager help market that to people who call and express interest.” 

The Nicola Valley Hospital and Health Centre currently has a relatively full staff of 15 registered nurses, 15 licensed practical nurses, and 3 physicians. Interior Health is currently recruiting for 3 full-time registered nurses, one part-time registered nurse, and a relief part-time position to join the team in Merritt. The lab team is fully staffed on the collections front, but has a slight deficit of Medical Laboratory Technologists to operate some of the lab’s equipment. Internal recruitment measures are underway for these positions. 

Interior Health offers educational bursaries and paid training for those interested in working in a rural healthcare setting. A number of recruitment incentives are available to nurses and physicians working in smaller communities like Merritt, including relocation assistance and other perks. Interior Health representatives told the Herald that recruiting more staff won’t necessarily fix the issue, although staff shortage issues do compound other challenges.

“Some of these disruptions aren’t necessarily due to the overall vacancies, they’re due to short-notice sick calls and the vacation that we do have to provide for our staff that are working,” Joanne Isber, corporate director of IH pathology and laboratory medicine.

“We have to give them a level of time off to let them recharge, and that does create some level of service disruption, especially at this time of year.”

Isber and Zetes both noted that closures have been avoided in recent weeks thanks to external resources the Nicola Valley Hospital can draw from through Interior Health. Their High Acuity Response Team (HART), a mobile team of Registered Nurses and technicians dedicated to healthcare in B.C’s rural regions. 

Before an emergency room is closed, often called a diversion, a number of steps are taken to secure possible replacements for vacant positions, short notice sick calls, or other gaps in staffing levels. Casual staff and other staff that have rural emergency room care training are offered the shift at an overtime rate. Managers view staffing sheets to identify those who are within the collective agreement’s allowed kilometre range, have worked in Merritt before or have rural healthcare training, and are available to take the shift. The Nicola Valley Hospital can access other rural hospitals, Kamloops’ Royal Inland Hospital, or the HART team for staffing support. An ER closure is seen by Interior Health as a last resort measure, with staff adding that the closures are far less common in Merritt than other rural communities.

“We won’t put people at risk by having them attend a site where we don’t have the appropriate staffing to care for people,” added Zetes. 

“My goal is always to have care as close to home as possible, and I take it very seriously that we need to keep our sites staffed. We’ve had relatively low levels of disruption in the Merritt area. When we do see them, they’re sporadic, and we see them as a result of sick calls. We’re not seeing the vacancies be the challenge at this point.”

For more information on Interior Health’s recruitment measures in Merritt and the Nicola Valley, visit their website at