After significant drop, Winnipeg hospital wait times climbing back to pre-pandemic levels
Health officials blame new pandemic requirements for extending the time most patients are waiting for care
It took nearly two hours for the average patient to be seen at a Winnipeg hospital in March — the longest wait in 15 months.
The median wait times at Winnipeg emergency departments and urgent care centres have grown steadily over the last four months, according to new data released last week by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
Data from the health authority shows the median time before hospital admission — an average representing the point where half of patients had shorter wait times, and half had longer wait times — had dropped to just under an hour last November.
At that point, public health officials were urging Manitobans to stay home as they imposed a second period of strict pandemic restrictions.
That was down considerably from 2019, when wait times exceeded two hours in some months. Those times plummeted in 2020 — even dropping by nearly 50 per cent — when health officials believe people didn't want to go to a hospital and potentially get exposed to COVID-19.
But wait times have risen since last November, reaching a median of 1.8 hours in March. That's the longest lull patients have spent at Winnipeg hospitals since January 2020, when the city was hit with three different viruses at the same time.
A health authority spokesperson said new pandemic requirements — such as requiring a COVID-19 test for emergency patients — have prolonged waits.
And while waits are rising toward pre-pandmic levels, they "still remain below historical averages," the spokesperson said.
But the leader of the Opposition NDP says growing wait times are a concern as the number of COVID-19 infections is climbing.
The wait times represent "a really bad scene in our health-care system … especially when you consider the [pandemic's] third wave has arrived in Manitoba," said Wab Kinew.
"What we saw in the second wave is we need a strong health-care system to be able to keep our province moving through this pandemic."
The Progressive Conservative government's health-care cuts and changes are "putting all that at risk," he said.
"When you look at the wait times, now you're seeing the impact on the patients as well."
In 2017, the Progressive Conservative government began centralizing emergency care into three ERs, rather than six — in large part to slash wait times. The reform was completed in 2019.
The average wait in March was longest at Winnipeg's three emergency departments: Health Sciences Centres (2.67 hours), Grace Hospital (2.55 hours) and St. Boniface Hospital (2.38 hours).
Wait times at the remaining Winnipeg hospitals in March were:
- Concordia urgent care: 1.55 hours.
- HSC children's ER: 0.70 hours.
- Seven Oaks urgent care: 1.72 hours.
- Victoria urgent care: 1.93 hours.
April data won't be available until the last week of May.
90% of HSC patients wait 8 hours
Overall, wait times look worse when examining the 90th percentile measure — an indicator of the amount of time in which 90 per cent of emergency room visitors were seen after they registered at the front desk.
In March, 90 per cent of Health Sciences Centre patients were seen within 8.07 hours — around two hours longer than the wait at the St. Boniface and Grace emergency rooms. That's the longest 90th percentile wait time reported at HSC since April 2019.
A spokesperson for Shared Health, the organization that runs Health Sciences, said the need for COVID-19 tests has extended wait times at the hospital with Manitoba's sickest patients. Emergency patients are not admitted into an appropriate unit until their COVID-19 test results are returned (usually four to six hours).
The imposition of other safety measures, such as the use of isolation spaces, has also contributed to rising wait times, as have COVID-19 outbreaks in various hospital units and personal care homes that have affected hospital capacity, according to Shared Health and the Winnipeg health authority.
Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson acknowledged that COVID-19 testing is extending wait times, but she said the health authority is ignoring the role of chronic staffing shortages.
"What I'm hearing from nurses is there may be beds there, but there's no one to look after these individuals in those beds," Jackson said.
"I think the fact that we have a nursing shortage has a huge impact on whether we're able to actually bring those patients out of the back of a hall in emergency and put them into a bed."
The Official Opposition has also pointed to staffing shortages as an issue.
Last month, the NDP obtained data through a freedom of information request that found 1,283 vacant nursing positions, as of January in Winnipeg's health region. The vacancy rate of 16.7 per cent is double what a previous health minister said was a "normal."
A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority told CBC that as of last week, 32 of 109 nursing positions at the St. Boniface Hospital emergency room were unfilled — a vacancy rate of nearly 30 per cent.
Health Minister Heather Stefanson wasn't made available for an interview, but in a statement, the provincial government said it had made "significant headway in reducing wait times."
With files from Holly Caruk