Hospital unions say 66 cancelled surgeries due to a lack of beds at London Health Sciences Centre are 'the tip of the iceberg' in a local health system that's underfunded, understaffed and running at overcapacity.  

A freedom of information request filed by CBC News has revealed there were at least 66 surgeries cancelled at London Health Sciences Centre between 2014 and 2016 due to a lack of beds. 

The operations range from minor clinical procedures, such as circumcisions or colonoscopies, to major surgeries, such as coronary artery bypasses and even a hysterectomy, all cancelled due to bed shortages at the hospital. 

A LHSC spokeswoman said 66 cancelled operations represent a fraction of one per cent of the total procedures performed at the hospital, which averages about 53,000 scheduled surgeries in a given year. 

'Just the tip of the iceberg'

Linda Haslam-Stroud

Ontario Nurses' Association President Linda Haslam-Stroud says while the number of cancelled surgeries at LHSC may be small, they are 'just the tip of the iceberg' when it comes to what's really happening behind the scenes at the hospital. (Erik White/CBC)

"I would tend to agree with the hospital, as far as the ratio, the number of surgeries cancelled are very little. But I would suggest to you that is just the tip of the iceberg of the real story of what is taking place at hospitals across Ontario, including LHSC," said Linda Haslam-Stroud, the president of the Ontario Nurses' Association, representing 65,000 nurses in the province. 

"The story really is about the delays for our patients is, first of all, getting an operating room time and secondly, getting it done at the time that has been booked for them," - Linda Haslam-Stroud

"The story really is about the delays for our patients is, first of all, getting an operating room time and secondly, getting it done at the time that has been booked for them," she said. 

Haslam-Stroud said elective surgeries are quite often delayed because of acute cases that need immediate attention and too few staff to handle the excess capacity.

It then creates a domino effect and reverberates through the system, requiring patients and nurses staying in the hospital later than expected, she said.  

"It becomes an absolute vicious circle," she said. " You have surgeries being delayed all through the system and then you don't have a bed to admit the patient as required. We're backing up the patients in emergency, you have the surge, the overcapacity and the hallway nursing taking place."

'The system won't staff up' 

Michael Hurley

Michael Hurley is the president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions. (Canadian Union of Public Employees)

"What you have there is one window on a problem which is actually very robust," said Michael Hurley, the president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, representing 35,000 practical nurses, cleaners and clerical staff across the province. 

"It's a very dangerous problem, overcrowding," he said. "Most people's experience is they wait a long time in the ER to be seen. They may wait on a stretcher while they wait for a bed. It may be for days." 

"People make a lot of arrangements to go into surgery ... all this gets thrown in the garbage essentially because the system won't staff up." - Mike Hurley

"There will be a lot of pressure on them and their families to be discharged even though they're not well enough to go home," he said. "I think that's most peoples' experience with a hospital system that's stretched to overcapacity." 

Hurley said years of budget cuts by the Ontario government has led to fewer beds and fewer staff that's led many hospitals, such as LHSC to run at overcapacity. 

"It's important to put each of those cancellations in its context, which is that for the person involved as a patient and the family that is around them is, people make a lot of arrangements to go into surgery, time off work, arrange for caregivers. All this gets thrown in the garbage essentially because the system won't staff up," he said. 

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, in 2016 Ontario had lowest ratio of registered nurses to patients in Canada with 703 registered nurses for every 100,000 patients, compared to an average of 839 for the rest of the country.