TORONTO: Health authorities across Canada have shortened the opening hours of emergency departments at hospitals and emergency clinics in recent weeks, a move that could take until the summer in some cases due to an increase in patient numbers and staff shortages.
The situation, clinicians say, is linked to a resurgence of viral infections such as COVID-19 among adults and children and a pressure from others to seek care that has been delayed by the pandemic, and exacerbated by the large number of health care workers sick or burned. from.
The tension has led to scenes of congested hospital corridors and overcrowded clinic waiting rooms, hours-long waits for inpatient care and more than 100 percent occupancy rates in children’s hospitals. It has also revived the debate about systemic issues in the government-funded health care system.
On Thursday (June 30), Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital in eastern Ontario announced that the emergency department in Perth would be closed from Saturday to Thursday due to a COVID-19 outbreak affecting staffing levels.
“It’s like the four horsemen of the apocalypse all coming at us at once in health care,” said Alan Drummond, a family emergency medicine physician in the city, which is home to about 6,000 people.
Drummond, who spoke to Reuters before the closure was announced, sees patients waiting 20 hours to be admitted, a situation that could lead to a worsening of their condition or even medical errors. He blames the situation on years of inadequate funding for hospital beds and community care.
While hospitals in small towns and cities in Canada sometimes reduce their hours, it is rarer for regional health centers to do so.
Ontario’s Department of Health would not say how many hospitals in the province, Canada’s most populous, will be affected by partial or temporary closures, but said it has taken steps to address the problem, including the detention of nurses and other health workers. .
“Sometimes hospitals have to make the difficult decision to temporarily close their emergency rooms so that operations can continue in the rest of the hospital,” a ministry spokesman said.
Hospitals in Quebec, the country’s second-largest province, New Brunswick and Manitoba have also partially closed wards or temporarily reduced hours for periods ranging from a few weeks to several months, according to hospital statements.
In Kingston, Ontario, the Urgent Care Clinic at the Hotel Dieu Hospital has reduced its hours of operation over the Canada Day long weekend. A spokesman for the Kingston Health Science Center described the move, which began Friday, as a planned one-off cut, but added that “staff shortages and the current increase in patient numbers are expected to continue throughout the summer”.
Children have been hit hard by the health care crisis as young people succumbed to illness without prior exposure to some viruses in the spring, as many people have abandoned the face masks used to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The Eastern Ontario Children’s Hospital in Ottawa, the nation’s capital, ran at a capacity of 110 to 120 percent for weeks in May and early June. The occupancy rate was a record for the month of May, a spokesman said.
Low staffing levels and rising patient loads are “kind of like that perfect storm,” said Katharine Smart, a pediatrician who is the president of the Canadian Medical Association.
Canada has the fourth lowest number of funded acute care beds per capita among countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, according to the OECD, and the Commonwealth Fund ranks Canada’s health system second to last of 11 rich countries.
Some blame the underfunding of the health care system dating back to the 1990s, when Canada’s federal government cut spending to control the country’s deficit.
Others, such as the right-wing Fraser Institute, say the government-funded system itself is at the root of the problems, suggesting a move to a privately funded model.
Canada may have little time to lose.
Rami Rahal, a vice president of the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, said there is a danger that cancer and deaths could worsen in the country as a result of long periods of skipping or delaying screening and delaying treatment.
“We cannot get out of this crisis,” he said. “We need to find innovative ways to deliver care.”