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Respiratory illness pushes Red Deer emergency department to the edge

Emergency department staff ‘furiously treading water,’ says Alberta Medical Association
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The Alberta Medical Association says the emergency department at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre is struggling with overcapacity. (File photo by Advocate staff)

Red Deer hospital’s emergency department was in critical condition on Monday with 35 out of 36 care spaces filled and nowhere to move patients.

“They were sick patients that needed to be up on the floors, like heart attacks, strokes, surgical patients. But there was no space on the wards to go to,” said Paul Parks, president of the Alberta Medical Association, who spoke to colleagues at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre on Monday.

He said the emergency department technically wasn’t closed, but how can it really function when there is only space to care for one more patient?

When more trauma or critically ill patients arrive, there’s no place for physicians to treat them except on stretchers in the hallway, he added.

Parks said he didn’t want to discourage anyone from seeking care, but depending on their condition, it may take hours to see a doctor.

“They may get their care in the hallway, or an ambulance bay, or really non-traditional spaces. The staff that are there are really furiously treading water, trying to keep their head above water, and trying to do the best they can in a difficult environment.

“That’s the kind of reality that they’re dealing with every day in the emergency department in Red Deer. It’s pretty grim.”

He said patients who need specialized care that Red Deer can’t offer may wait for days in emergency or elsewhere in the hospital because Calgary and Edmonton hospitals are also struggling with overcapacity. Seasonal respiratory illness is overwhelming hospitals, but Red Deer’s capacity has been strained for years.

A $1.8-billion hospital project was announced two years ago to expand Red Deer hospital and will take until 2031 to plan, design and complete construction.

Brenda Schmidt, who had a heart attack, said she saw patients on stretchers in the hallway on Oct. 23 while she waited overnight in the emergency department for a bed on the cardiac unit.

She recalled spending a few days in a semi-private room on the unit where about eight patients were sleeping in the unit’s former television room with their beds separated by curtains, and hallways were crowded with equipment and supplies.

“I don’t know how they can work in those conditions,” said the Red Deer County resident about staff, who despite their challenges, were great.

She had to wait until Oct. 26 to be sent by ambulance to an Edmonton hospital for surgery.

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Parks said since about the summer Red Deer hospital has lacked specialists on site, or on call, which has also meant longer stays for patients in emergency. Due to capacity constraints the hospital has lost some emergency physicians and is having difficulty recruiting more, and has turned to international recruitment.

Red Deer and Alberta Health Services Central Zone also has staffing challenges when it comes to nurses and other health care workers.

He said AHS administration is working hard to transfer patients to level the load on hospitals and optimize every available space. But more needs to be done to stabilize the health care system, including more funding for family doctors and investing to retain doctors to work overnight shifts in hospitals, including in Red Deer.

“Right now, we’re discussing at the health minister’s level, and trying to get the premier’s attention, that we really need some immediate stabilization investment so we can incent the workforce to be where we most critically need it right now.”

Otherwise, there will be nothing left to restructure in health care except rubble, Parks said.

“There won’t be anything left. There won’t be a workforce to restructure, so we need to focus on stabilization ASAP.”

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Red Deer doctors struggling with overcapacity at hospital

Alberta Health Services said in a statement that the Red Deer hospital, including its emergency department, continues to see high demand.

“AHS has multiple actions underway to support patient flow within facilities like RDRHC including adding beds where possible, increasing staffing, expediting patient moves to appropriate alternative or continuing care spaces, and working provincially to coordinate and support patient movement,” AHS said.

AHS also continues its efforts to recruit additional emergency department physicians and bolster available supports for the department to support its teams by hiring additional physician assistants for the emergency department.

As always, the sickest patients are given priority, and care continues to be provided. No patients are being turned away, AHS said.

In the weeks to come, Parks said Alberta doctors are bracing for even more people needing care at emergency departments.

“We know our volumes go up over Christmas and into January and February. We’re very worried with this critical access block (emergency patients unable to access an inpatient bed) right now that it’s only going to get worse.”



szielinski@reddeeradvocate.com

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