Manitoba

Wait times 'unbelievable' at Winnipeg ERs as swamped hospitals open over-capacity beds

Winnipeg hospital emergency rooms have been so busy this week that patients have been diverted away from the Health Sciences Centre, while others continue to face steep wait times.

Health Sciences Centre was redirecting ambulances to other hospitals in the city

Winnipeg's hospital emergency rooms have been seeing a spike in patients for the past few weeks. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Winnipeg hospital emergency rooms have been so busy this week that some patients have been diverted away from the Health Sciences Centre (HSC) — and others, such as Jan Lankester's daughter, continue to face steep wait times.

HSC, St. Boniface Hospital, Grace Hospital and Seven Oaks Hospital have all opened over-capacity beds recently to meet demand, according to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA).

System-wide, there are currently 73 over-capacity beds in use.

Lankester's daughter needed emergency care, so she took her to the HSC emergency room Tuesday. It was standing room only when they arrived at 4 a.m. CT, and there was a wait list of 103 people ahead of them, she said.

In the 16 hours they were at the hospital, Lankester said there were corrections officers, police with two men in shackles, and people with serious mental health issues waiting alongside the rest.

This is what went through my mind: third-world country. I cannot believe I am sitting here in Winnipeg and this is happening, and the wait time is unbelievable.- Jan Lankester

The water fountain wasn't working, and the one washroom wasn't enough for everyone, she said.

Jan Lankester and her daughter waited 16 hours in the Health Sciences Centre emergency waiting room Tuesday. (Warren Kay/CBC)

It's clear staff were doing their best to manage, she said, but the crammed waiting room and chaos she saw is a problem.

"What does that tell you about our system?" she said. "This is what went through my mind: third-world country. I cannot believe I am sitting here in Winnipeg and this is happening, and the wait time is unbelievable."

900 in ERs

WRHA president Réal Cloutier said at one point Wednesday afternoon, there were about 900 people in Winnipeg ERs.

He said spikes like this happen nearly ever year around this time due to flu season, but because influenza season is winding down, it's not the only contributing factor, he said.

The main culprit right now, said Cloutier, has been a jump in the number of people with common cold viruses and respiratory illnesses who take longer to recover, and that's tying up beds.

Hospitals in Winnipeg have a protocol that allows them to divert ambulances to other hospitals during times when patient volume is extremely high. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

"The seasonal demand that we get at this time of year has been a bit different than we saw last year, and it's been longer and more prolonged, but certainly people are sicker in the hospitals, and we're having challenges around discharges from our hospitals," said Cloutier.

The increase in patient volume has been going on for several weeks but emergency rooms were particularly busy during the past week, prompting HSC on Tuesday to direct some ambulances to other ERs.

'Extra busy'

However, as HSC is the only facility in Winnipeg able to treat certain conditions, some patients were still accepted.

"There's no doubt yesterday was extra busy at Health Sciences Centre," Cloutier said Wednesday.

Health Sciences Centre was redirecting ambulances to other hospitals in the city on Tuesday. That redirection protocol was lifted on Wednesday. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

"They had a very large number of patients waiting [for] admission to the hospital, and there was a very large number of patients that were waiting to be seen, so there's no question it was busy." 

The redirection was meant to free up capacity for those patients with specialized needs that only HSC can provide, the WRHA said.

That redirection protocol was lifted on Wednesday.

'Not an extraordinary event'

"Both with emergency medical services and even with our contingency planning around flu and other respiratory disease, these are all documented procedures that we have in place in terms of dealing with this," said Cloutier.

"So this is not an extraordinary event. We are, in effect, implementing standard operating procedures for these peak demand periods."

In addition to using over-capacity beds, many hospitals have added extra staff while long-term care staff are also working to assist with the movement of patients to transitional care environments, personal care homes, or back to their  homes with home-care supports, in an effort to improve patient flow, according to the WRHA.

Lankester gives kudos to the doctors and nurses and other medical professionals struggling to keep up, and she invites the premier to take a first-hand look.

"Let's haul Brian Pallister in here, who gets top notch medical care in Costa Rica. He needs to sit in there, and his cabinet ministers need to sit in there, for a weekend like that and see what goes on. It was mind-boggling."

With files from Laura Glowacki and Susan Magas

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