Alberta hospitals feel the strain as overdose-related ER visits skyrocket

Opioid overdoses are taking a growing and dramatic toll on Alberta hospitals, resulting in an average of 11 emergency department visits in the province every day, according a new report.

'What we're seeing is more harms associated with ... the increased severity of the crisis'

Dr. Eddy Lang is one of the authors of the study that looked at Alberta hospitalization data for the first 6 months of the pandemic. (Submitted by Dr. Eddy Lang)

Opioid overdoses are taking a growing and dramatic toll on Alberta hospitals, resulting in an average of 11 emergency department visits in the province every day, according a new report.

The statistics, released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), reveal overdose-related emergency room visits in Alberta have doubled in just three years.

ER visits due to poisonings from synthetic opioids — including fentanyl — have increased more than tenfold over the past five years. 

"It is concerning," said Michael Gaucher, CIHI director of pharmaceuticals and health workforce information services.

"What we're seeing is more harms associated with … the increased severity of the crisis over the past couple of years." 

Gaucher says Calgary has the highest rate of ER visits of all the major cities studied in Alberta and Ontario, the only provinces for which this data is available.

The Frontlines

Doctors and nurses are feeling the strain.

"We're seeing a lot of patients … either snatched from the jaws of death with the antidote treatment or still arriving here in a very sedated, opioid-poisoned state, from taking fentanyl that's usually illicit," said Dr. Eddy Lang, head of emergency medicine in Calgary and a professor at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine.

"This is consuming a great deal of resources, obviously."

Fentanyl, a dangerous opioid, has been a growing concern across Canada. (CBC)

When he's on shift in the ER, Lang sees two groups of people affected most.

There are the chronic drug users, who are often living in shelters. But more and more often, young Calgarians are being brought in by paramedics.

"[They're] seeing these medications at suburban parties, where fentanyl is getting in and is being experimented on by youth. And as a result we're seeing youth that have never been in trouble at all with drugs coming with in with these problems." Lang said.

According to the CIHI report, Alberta youth between the ages of 15 and 24 had the fastest growing rate of emergency room visits for overdoses, with the number tripling in the past five years.

Next Steps

As hospitals work to keep up with the demand, Lang is anxious to see Calgary's first supervised consumption site — planned for the Sheldon Chumir Centre and still under review by Health Canada — approved and off the ground.

It could have a huge impact, according to Lang.

"If these sites are well accepted … we could see a 50 to 75 per cent reduction, hopefully, in the number of cases that have to come to hospital," he said.

"Patients who are addicted are going to keep using. And if they have a safe place to do so, they're far less likely to get into the trouble that will land them into an emergency department." 

Alberta Health Services has begun its recruitment process to hire nurses and administrative staff and expects to have its supervised consumption services in place early in 2018.