Hospital overcrowding leaves patients in hallways, despite province adding beds

The experience of a 41-year-old woman with pneumonia this week highlights the growing problem of overcrowding in Ontario hospitals, in spite of the measures already taken by the province to open more beds.

Doctors are worried the problem will get even worse with flu season upon us

Emergency departments at Etobicoke General Hospital and Brampton Civic Hospital are struggling to accommodate a higher volume of patients.

The experience of a 41-year-old woman with pneumonia this week highlights the growing problem of overcrowding in Ontario hospitals, in spite of the measures already taken by the province to open more beds. 

Holly Pothiah went to a hospital in Brampton, but then had to be rushed by ambulance to an Etobicoke hospital because of a shortage of space.

She ended up spending one day in a hallway followed by more than two days in the emergency department because no rooms were available there —  a problem doctors say is on the rise and will only get worse if this flu season is as bad as predicted. 

Pothiah was not feeling well Monday morning, so she and her husband went to Brampton Civic Hospital's emergency department.

She was seen quickly and diagnosed with pneumonia, but hospital staff said they weren't accepting any more patients.

"They told us it could be days before she could get a bed, because there weren't enough beds available," said her husband Mark Pothiah. "She was 34th in line for a bed."

A photo taken by Holly Pothiah's husband showing a patients waiting in a hallway in an emergency department. Hospital overcrowding may get worse with flu season. (Submitted by Mark Pothiah)

The hospital confirms that a "Code Gridlock" was declared that day. That's when there is a surge of admitted patients waiting in the emergency department for a bed.

Mark Pothiah says a doctor spent hours calling around trying to find a bed for his wife, but finally told them to go by ambulance to Etobicoke General Hospital's emergency department.

Patients siting in the middle of the hallway

There, it took them almost an hour before they checked his wife's vital signs and another two hours before a doctor saw her.

She ended up spending the night in a hallway along with many others, says Pothiah.

How do you expect a nurse or a doctor to treat their patients if they are sitting in the middle of a hallway?- Mark Pothiah

"How do you expect a nurse or a doctor to treat their patients if they are sitting in the middle of a hallway?" said Pothiah.

"The great nurses and doctors we have don't have what they need to help these patients in a quick and orderly manner."

By mid-day Thursday, Pothiah says his wife finally got a room, but he is concerned because she should have been isolated so nobody else could get infected. Staff had put up a sign near her telling people to stay away unless had on a mask, gloves and gown.

"This needs to change because she's going to be okay, but it's all these other people. I feel so bad when I see them sitting in the middle of the hallway. They're in agony, in pain," Pothiah told CBC Toronto.

Overcrowding in hospitals gets provincial attention

It's not the first case of patients jammed in hallways in the GTA, but the government had taken steps to address the over crowding, says Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins.

"Brampton Civic received 37 new acute care beds. In addition, Etobicoke General, also part of William Osler Health Network, received 22 new beds," Hoskins said.

The province announced in November that it's spending $41 million for 100 beds in the GTA. That includes the redevelopment of Peel Memorial Centre, which will help relieve the burden on other area hospitals. 

Another photo taken by Mark Pothiah showing overcrowding in a GTA emergency department. (Mark Pothiah)

"It's a very high growth area. So we've responded, I believe, effectively and certainly those beds have been allocated and are available," said Hoskins.

He added that he hoped the hospitals would have the new beds within days or weeks of the Nov. 9 announcement, so they would be available by the height of flu season.

Adding beds means adding staff

But Dr. Naveed Mohammad, the vice president of medical affairs for the William Osler Health System, says adding beds is a complicated task.

When a bed is provided to a hospital, what the ministry provides is a set dollar amount for that bed. What is more challenging is to find all the staffing that is needed around that bed.- Dr. Naveed Mohammad

"When a bed is provided to a hospital, what the ministry provides is a set dollar amount for that bed. What is more challenging is to find all the staffing that is needed around that bed," said Mohammad.

"We have to hire nurses and clerical support."

Dr. Naveed Mohammad, vice president of medical affairs for the William Osler Health System, to which both Etobicoke General and Brampton Civic belong, says adding beds is a complicated task. (Castell/CBC)

The hospital has held job fairs, but hiring staff is a time-consuming process and the health network has only been able to open eight new beds at Etobicoke General and six at Brampton Civic.

"The other beds will be coming online as we are hiring," said Mohammad, adding that more beds will be opened at the end of December and into 2018.

"The surge period runs from early December until March, so the new beds will benefit us throughout the surge period as we bring on the new staff," he said.

Hospitals not designed for higher volume of patients

Brampton Civic and Etobicoke General are over capacity due to a higher volume of patients than they were designed for.

Last fiscal year, Brampton Civic saw more than 140,000 visits to its emergency department and Etobicoke General almost 80,000.

Brampton Civic emergency department sees more patients than the emergency departments at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and the Hospital for Sick Children combined.

Brampton Civic Hospital's emergency ward could not accommodate the number of patients that needed treatment. (Castell/CBC)

A severe flu season is predicted and Mohammad says preparations such as coordinating with nursing homes, paramedics and public health units, are underway in case  a surge in patients does materialize.

But he says if history plays out and predictions are correct, hallway patients will likely be a more common sight over the next few weeks and into the spring.

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One.