Long wait times in ERs only the tip of health-care problems: doctors

CALGARY — A decade ago, emergency room doctor Grant Innes stopped and looked at the chaos that surrounded him.

CALGARY — A decade ago, emergency room doctor Grant Innes stopped and looked at the chaos that surrounded him.

More than a dozen stretchers filled the emergency waiting room. People were throwing up into garbage cans. And there was nowhere for them to go.

“I had the closest thing I’ve ever had to a panic attack, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t work like this, this is ridiculous,”’ he said Monday.

That was the moment the Calgary doctor decided he needed to do something to help change the way emergency departments are run.

Innes now works as the head of the city’s three emergency departments. He’s one of more than 700 doctors who are meeting in Calgary this week, in part to discuss ways to cut down the number of hours patients wait in crowded emergency rooms to see a doctor.

The situation is still dire.

“We have huge numbers of very sick patients essentially left behind in hallways and on ambulance stretchers for long periods of time,” said Innes.

“And across the country, in every major Canadian city, in every large urban emergency room, you have patients who are deteriorating or having adverse events as a result of these delays to care.”

How many hours patients lie on ambulance stretchers or curled up on waiting room chairs before being seen by a doctor is slowly becoming a political issue across the country.

In February, Ontario’s health minister unveiled a plan to cap waiting times at eight hours for patients with complex problems and four hours for patients with minor issues.

Shortly after, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach asked his government to look into the issue after almost 200 health care professionals gathered in Edmonton to say wait times had soared.

“There’s no question patients are dying because of the wait times. We just don’t really know how many,” said Innes, pointing to research from Australia that showed mortality rates rose when emergency department wait times increased.

The issue was thrust into the spotlight last year when Brian Sinclair, a 45-year-old double-amputee, died in a Winnipeg emergency department after waiting for about 34 hours without being examined.

It’s hard to read about such cases, but it’s harder for overworked doctors to live with the conditions that make it possible, said Innes.

“That’s what is so demoralizing about this whole problem, is to see sick people and to deal with sick people who are not receiving the care they should be receiving.”

It’s impossible to talk about fixing emergency room wait times without addressing serious flaws in the health-care system as a whole, said several doctors attending the conference.

“It’s definitely the canary in the coal mine, so lots of problems elsewhere in the health system are reflected in the ER,” said Michael Schull, an emergency physician who works at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

About 15 to 20 per cent of patients in Ontario acute care beds could be moved to nursing homes or long-term care homes if there was room for them, or back into the community with the right supports, he said.

People also come to the emergency room when they can’t find a family doctor.

Solutions are also complex, said Schull, who worked on a study to be presented at the conference that looked at a pilot project aimed at improving the way patients move through an Ontario hospital, thereby freeing up ER space.

The project showed no change in wait times, but showed an improvement in how doctors and nurses perceived their work environment and ability to do their job, he said.

Innes said even if more funding for beds and staff isn’t provided, doctors and nurses need to be creative in finding solutions.

For example, a doctor could work in the waiting room, looking at patients before space is actually found to bring them into the emergency department.

He points to an emergency room in Toronto where no patients are left in a waiting room, but everyone is immediately brought into the department. Sometimes, if there’s no space, they’ll be left in chairs, but at least they’re being seen by medical staff.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Red Deer County has three new confirmed COVID-19 cases

The provincial government has confirmed three new COVID-19 cases in Red Deer… Continue reading

Rimbey textile artists creating hand-made masks

Group has also been helped out by a local business

People ‘can count on’ Alberta RCMP amid COVID-19 pandemic, says deputy commissioner

Albertans “can count on the RCMP every day” during the COVID-19 pandemic,… Continue reading

Central Albertans win big in 2020 STARS Lottery

A few central Albertans won big in the 2020 STARS lottery. Jeff… Continue reading

107 new cases of COVID-19 in Alberta, 5 additional deaths

More than 1,000 cases in Alberta total

WATCH: Red Deer emergency call centre hours change starting next week

Hours at the City of Red Deer’s COVID-19 emergency call centre will… Continue reading

Alberta Health Services provides COVID-19 prevention tips

Alberta Health Services has a number of recommendations for people amid the… Continue reading

Alberta government website has latest COVID-19 statistics

Red Deer Advocate readers can stay up to date on the COVID-19… Continue reading

Taste of home schooling generating new interest among parents

Selena Valencia is on the fence when it comes to home-schooling her… Continue reading

‘The Charter still applies’: Canadians urged to monitor civil liberties during pandemic

Civil rights advocates say citizens need to be vigilant about how authorities are using new powers

Essential workers talk about how COVID-19 affects them

Health-care workers, grocery store staff, transit drivers and food delivery workers are… Continue reading

Sister of woman found dead last month is accused of first-degree murder

/COQUITLAM, B.C. — A first-degree murder charge has been laid against the… Continue reading

Trudeau announces more financial help for country’s most vulnerable

$40 million will go to Women and Gender Equality Canada

Most Read