A Montreal-based company that supplies medical equipment and support to the people who use it will no longer take on new patients at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, the region’s largest children’s hospital.
The move by VitalAire is a concern to some doctors who say it could make a bad situation worse.
“It’s a significant impact to a lot of our kids, especially those with complex respiratory needs, but also a lot of the kids who have obstructive sleep apnea and just need some CPAP,” said Dr. Danielle Adam, a pediatric respirologist at the IWK.
She said that without the equipment and services, some patients who might ordinarily be sent home won’t be able to be discharged.
“There are unfortunately no other companies that support pediatric ventilation as much as VitalAire does,” said Adam.
She learned the news three weeks ago when the company advised the hospital it would not take on new patients for at least six months.
Adam said she and her colleagues are worried “for the future, in terms of what the impact [will be] for our existing kids, as well as kids upcoming who may need equipment and support with their respiratory health.”
“The biggest thing that I can see is a patient that needs the equipment to go home but can’t because we don’t have access to them,” she said. “So they’re taking out beds in the hospital [at] a crucial time for our health-care system.
“They’re taking up a bed that they otherwise would not need because they could be supported at home with this equipment.”
The hospital’s emergency department and its intensive care unit have seen a surge in patients in recent weeks. The demand is driven by a sharp increase in viral lung infections.
Staff shortage to blame
VitalAire declined an interview request, but parent company Air Liquide issued a statement.
Air Liquide spokesperson Joan Beauchamp said a shortage of staff is the main reason.
“VitalAire Canada informed the Halifax IWK hospital on October 21 that, following a recent assessment of our capabilities to continue supporting the discharging of home-ventilated patients from this hospital, it has been decided to temporarily suspend our service offering to new patients while we maintain it for existing patients,” wrote Beauchamp.
“This situation is caused by the combination of the large influx of patients arriving for in-person appointments at our clinical branches across Nova Scotia after the pandemic, and the challenges related to the workforce shortage.”
The company operates five private sleep clinics across Nova Scotia and is not reducing service to other hospitals in the province.
Besides the concern over hospital beds, Adam said she and her colleagues rely on VitalAire for a variety of other services.
“They do quite a lot actually,” she said. “The biggest thing is that they supply equipment [such as] ventilators, CPAP or BIPAP modes, pediatric masks. They provide us with cough assist, suction equipment, aerosols. They also do home sleep studies.
“Our neuromuscular kids … just have poor airway clearance. A lot of that equipment is also supplied by VitalAire and, so, it’s impacting quite a number of our patients.”
Adam would like the province to set up and fund a program similar to one that supplies home oxygen to those who need it.
A spokesperson for the IWK downplayed the significance of the supply shortage and the effect it could have on patients.
“They will continue to provide services to existing patients at this time,” Ben Maycock said in a statement. “They will also continue the home oxygen program.
“For the gap in service for equipment, IWK Health is assessing on a case-by-case basis. To date there has been no impact to patients or the hospital.”
“It’s a big impact for our program,” she said. “There’s an immediate impact right now.”