Canadian ER doctor says wait times are the ‘worst it’s ever been’

Emergency room doctors say wait times in Ontario have never been longer. Richard Southern with how that could be putting patients at risk.

By Richard Southern and Meredith Bond

Canadian emergency room doctors are growing increasingly concerned over wait times in the thick of the respiratory virus season.

“I’ve worked in emergency departments since 1987, and it’s by far the worst it’s ever been. It’s not even close,” said Dr. Michael Howlett, President of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians.

The Ontario government has not provided any up-to-date information, but the latest publicly available wait time info from November shows patients admitted to hospitals in the province spent an average of over 22 hours waiting in the ER for a bed, and only 23 per cent were admitted to hospital from the emergency department within the provincial target time of eight hours.

Doctors say it’s a problem that has serious consequences.

“We’ve got people dying in waiting rooms because we don’t have a place to put them,” said Dr. Howlett. “People being resuscitated on an ambulance stretcher or a floor. Those things have happened.”

When asked about ER doctors’ concerns, Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones’s office said, “In the past year, we have added over 17,000 nurses and 2,400 new physicians,” and that the government is “investing $44 million to help emergency departments stay open.”

The positions have been added by breaking down barriers for internationally and interprovincially educated healthcare workers and launching the largest medical school expansion in over 15 years.

But doctors say the biggest factor in the ER wait times is not staffing but a lack of hospital beds for patients.

“We’ve been saying this is a crisis for a long time, but we’re just waking up now. It’s late.”

Liberal MPP Dr. Adil Shamj acknowledged that the respiratory season has always been challenging for the healthcare system. Still, the current situation is due to “uncontrollable underspending” by the current government and ignoring the root causes of the challenge the system is facing.

“We’re seeing epidemic, moral injury, burnout and demoralization amongst our nurses, PSWs, paramedics, and, of course, our physicians as well,” said Dr. Shamji.

“We’ve also seen a massive exodus of nurses and family doctors out of our health care system, increasing the strain on primary care, leaving people with no choice but to turn to the emergency department.”

He said it won’t be long before they start seeing the consequences Dr. Howlett spoke about.

“There’s good evidence to show that as wait times in emergency departments go up, the number of preventable deaths goes up as well. Just recently, we heard about a newborn child that was forced to wait five hours before they saw an emergency doctor,” said Dr. Shamji.

“As we see examples of this, I assure you that is just the tip of the iceberg. As we see more examples of this, we are also going to see increases in unexplained mortality.”

On how he would fix it, Dr. Shamji said he would start with ensuring everyone had access to a family doctor and health care workers were adequately compensated.

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