The health center normally operates with a staff of 12 physicians who divide their time between the outpatient clinic and the emergency department, Navajo Indian Health Service spokeswoman Jenny Notah said. The staff has dwindled to five full-time physicians, forcing the center to reduce hours of operation for the next several months.
"(This) is not sufficient to safely meet the demands of providing medical care 24 hours a day, seven days a week," she said.
Emergency services will be provided on a limited basis beginning Friday, Notah said. The emergency room will be open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, but it will be closed during the night. Between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., people needing emergency medical services are instructed to call 911.
The decision to cut services comes less than a year after the Crownpoint hospital reduced hours in response to an acute shortage of technical staff. The IHS has since reopened the Crownpoint center, Notah said.
"No other hospitals or health centers on the Navajo Nation are affected by the shortage," she said.
The Kayenta Health Center serves about 17,000 people from seven chapters on the Navajo Nation every year, said Betty Lee, a nurse recruiter and spokeswoman for the health center.
"We are in the midst of hiring physicians," she said. "We recruit every day because of the shortage, and everyone is working on bringing in a permanent staff."
The physician shortage on the reservation is part of a nationwide trend, Lee said.
"It's critical here in the Kayenta service unit now," she said. "We're bringing in recruits from all over."
The Kayenta Health Center has six emergency room bays, but no inpatient facilities, Lee said. Patients needing additional services or those with medical emergencies during the night will be transported to the nearest hospitals located in Tuba City, Ariz., or Chinle, Ariz. The journey to either hospital takes about an hour, Lee said.
The reduction in services is expected to be temporary, said Linda White, chief executive officer over the Kayenta Health Center.
"This is an issue that many other health organizations face throughout the country, and we are seeing the impact in Kayenta," she said. "The change in the emergency room hours at Kayenta is a temporary measure and should last no more than three or four months or until additional medical staff can be hired. The goal during this time is to continue providing as many patient care services as possible without sacrificing quality or safety."
Administrators will review recruitment and staffing in July, Lee said.
"If we have staffing in place, changes in hours will happen at that time," she said.
The Kayenta Health Center serves the Kayenta, Dennehotso, Chilchinbeto, Oljato, Navajo Mountain and Inscription House chapters.
Alysa Landry: firstname.lastname@example.org