Edmonton

ER doctor worried about chronic overcrowding at U of A hospital

Emergency room doctors at Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital have called an urgent meeting with senior management after reporting the most severe patient backlog since 2010.

'It's kind of like arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,' says ER doctor

"Every day there's emails, there's complaints from the clinical staff, the nurses, the physicians … Everyone is under a lot of stress. Nobody likes to see a waiting room full, with people suffering,” Dr. Brian Rowe, an ER doctor at the University of Alberta Hospital, told CBC News. (CBC)

Emergency room doctors at Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital have called an urgent meeting with senior management after reporting the most severe patient backlog since 2010.

Sources tell CBC News the hospital's emergency department is in crisis, with acutely ill patients often waiting for up to eight hours to see a doctor.

According to the Alberta Health Services website, the acceptable time period for a patient to wait, see a doctor and be discharged is four hours. At the U of A, fewer than four in 10 patients were discharged within that time.

"There's very good evidence that the longer you wait in the emergency department, the more chance you have of being admitted and the more chance you have of dying," Dr. Brian Rowe, an ER doctor and researcher at the hospital, told CBC News.

Dr. Rowe said the waiting room is also full overnight, too, with few beds opening to treat patients.

He said the ER waiting room environment has become so stressful for staff that some nurses have begun to refuse triage shifts.

"Every day there's emails, there's complaints from the clinical staff, the nurses, the physicians … Everyone is under a lot of stress. Nobody likes to see a waiting room full, with people suffering,” he said. “It's a very unpleasant environment right now, because physicians and nurses are being stretched beyond their capacity."

AHS working to increase number of beds available

Alberta Health Services says emergency rooms across the province are particularly busy right now because of the cold weather and seasonal flu.

“AHS is constantly working to address capacity challenges in our emergency departments,” Kerry Williamson, the senior media relations adviser with AHS, said in an email.

Williamson said AHS has “several initiatives” underway to address the overcrowding issue, introducing two rapid-transit units at the U of A Hospital and Royal Alexandra Hospital. The units, which are each made up of eight to 15 beds outside the ER, are staffed by nurses and other front-line workers.

Williamson said the medical staff in the U of A rapid-transit unit have treated 109 patients in the few weeks since it has opened freeing up space in emergency. However, the U of A’s unit is not open overnight.

Dr. Rowe said long-term data shows the current crunch is part of a growing trend caused by failure to move ‘bed-blockers’ patients who should be moved to other hospital units in a timely fashion. He said it is not uncommon to see three quarters of the beds in emergency being taken up by such patients.

"It's kind of like arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he said. “Things are under a lot of stress, and one or two patients going to another area isn't going to make a huge difference."

In October, the province also announced it would open up nearly 350 long-term care beds across the province to help free up hospital space.

Twenty per cent of the newly vacant beds will be dedicated to patients who are admitted into emergency departments, with another portion being designated as “rapid flow” beds for patients who are not seriously ill but still need a doctor.

However, doctors on the ground point out it could be years before those beds open up.

Emergency room doctors at the U of A Hospital are scheduled to meet with senior managers on Dec. 18.

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