09/03/2013 10:29 EDT | Updated 11/03/2013 05:12 EST

Amount of time ERs in Nova Scotia are closed continues to decline, report says

HALIFAX - The amount of time emergency rooms are closed in Nova Scotia continues to decline, a trend that can be attributed to the opening of collaborative emergency centres, the province's health minister said Tuesday.

David Wilson said progress is being made in keeping rural ERs open, pointing to a government report that shows ERs were shut down for 15,083 hours in the 2012-13 fiscal year, down from 17,717 hours the year before.

"I think it's a good model," Wilson said of the province's collaborative emergency centres, which have opened in seven communities since 2011.

Collaborative emergency centres are part of the NDP government's response to overcrowding and closures at rural emergency rooms. The centres are essentially one-stop clinics that can see patients through same-day or next-day appointments and can handle most medical problems that aren't life-threatening emergencies.

They are staffed overnight by a registered nurse who is usually assisted by a paramedic and supported by an on-call physician.

Wilson said while the government plans to expand the use of the centres, that would not be appropriate in some areas served by larger hospitals.

The fourth annual Emergency Department Accountability Report released Tuesday says while Nova Scotia is reducing the length of time ERs are shut — in 2009-10, for instance, they were closed for 19,116 hours — 13 of the province's 38 hospitals experienced ER closures last year.

Wilson said challenges remain in some rural areas such as the South Shore, where the ER at Fisherman's Memorial Hospital in Lunenburg was closed for 3,395 hours.

He said physician staffing levels are a problem that the Health Department is trying to address through initiatives such as a medical student residency program in the Annapolis Valley.

Progressive Conservative health critic Chris d'Entremont said the report shows that the NDP have not kept their 2009 election campaign promise to keep ERs open.

"On the eve of this election, they are bragging about over 15,000 hours – or 628 days – of ER closures," d'Entremont said in a news release. "They aren't even close to keeping their election promise."

Wilson defended the government's record on ERs but added there is no easy fix to the scope of the problems facing rural emergency care.

"We've moved extremely far in ensuring that people have access to the care they need and I believe we are continuing to see improvements in the health care system," he said.