Santa Cabrini Hospital no longer employs a single geriatric physician, even though close to half its patients are older than 75.

Two geriatricians retired in December, and the Saint-Leonard hospital lost another critical member just recently.

"We had one new physician coming in in January, and unfortunately she advised us that she will leave in June," said Martine Leblanc of the regional health authority, the CIUSSS de l'Est-de-l'Ile-de-Montreal.

This situation could have been avoided, said Annie Blanchard, vice-president of the union representing health care professionals in east-end Montreal.

"It could have been prevented" because the hospital knew about the retirements, said Blanchard, adding that hiring more doctors would have helped.

The regional health authority said it has tried and has had difficulty recruiting a suitable candidate. It insisted the geriatric unit will remain open, that no beds will be lost and general practitioners can provide adequate care for seniors.

"With an ageing population, all general practitioners take care of the elderly," said Claude Riendeau of the east-end health authority.

If more complex treatment is needed, Riendeau said the hospital would ask for help from other geriatricians in the health care system.

"But for the majority of the clientele, the doctors will be able to treat those patients," he said.

Blanchard said the union is worried the geriatric unit could close in the future.

"If I don't have this unit, first of all, the people -- the elderly -- are going to be stuck in the emergency room," she said.

The health ministry said it's aware of the situation at Santa Cabrini. It said its priority is to ensure elderly patients get the care they need, adding that a lack of medical staff is a challenge for the entire health network.