IWK Health Centre sees spike in emergency visits

The IWK Health Centre says it saw a jump in visits to the emergency department over the winter months, leading the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union to call for a faster expansion of the department.

Half the visits in February and March were for urgent cases

The IWK Health Centre saw an average of 27 extra patients every day in the emergency department in February. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

The IWK Health Centre says the hospital saw a jump in visits to the emergency department over the winter months, leading the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union to call for a faster expansion of the department.

February brought 29 per cent more visits to the women's and children's hospital's emergency department compared to the year before, while March saw an increase of 22 per cent. 

The IWK said half of those cases were urgent, emergency cases.

"When you start hearing things about the IWK, you know there's a problem," nurses union president Janet Hazelton said, adding the department is bursting at the seams.

Hospitals across Nova Scotia reported packed emergency departments this winter, with some patients waiting days for care. The IWK was not immune to the surge. 

There were about 2,900 extra visits to the emergency department in the last fiscal year — roughly the number of visits the department sees in an average month.

In February, the department treated an extra 27 patients each day.

"Twenty-seven is a lot, especially when it's children," Hazelton said.

Winters usually busy, says hospital

Despite repeated requests from the CBC, a spokesperson said no one from the IWK was able to do an interview, citing staff vacations as the reason. Instead, the hospital sent a statement saying it has seen a steady increase every year for the last five years.

"With a system as complex as the ED, we are not able to pinpoint a single factor that has led to the increase. We do expect a large surge in volume every winter because children are more susceptible to influenza and other viruses as their immune system has not had to fight these before," the statement reads.

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, says an expansion of the department is urgently needed. (Rob Short/CBC)

It also speculates that the population of children has grown, increasing demand for the hospital, which treats patients from across the Maritimes.

Hazelton isn't buying that.

She says nurses in the unit are seeing more patients without family doctors, and the department urgently needs an expansion.

"It's really really small, very congested and not appropriate for the increased volume."

Renovation promised

A renovation is in the works. Last year, Premier Stephen McNeil promised to double the size of the department.

A spokesperson for the Health Department said the renovation is still in the early design stage, and the hospital and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal are set to meet in the next few weeks to develop the scope of the work.

Hazelton is worried that the project will be delayed and the department will continue to be squeezed as the number of visits rises. 

"When you have increased volumes like that, you cannot expect people to work in the same geographic space that they are working in," she said. "You can't expect to have the same outcomes."

About the Author

Carolyn Ray

Videojournalist

Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at Carolyn.Ray@cbc.ca