'Astonishingly busy' day creates ambulance backlog at Halifax hospitals

Seventeen ambulances waited for hours Monday at a Halifax hospital, part of a trend physicians and the union that represents paramedics say is worrisome and could put people's health at risk.

17 ambulances waited with patients at the Halifax Infirmary ER, another 18 at Dartmouth General

Paramedics and 18 ambulances waited at the Dartmouth General Hospital Monday, pictured here in 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Seventeen ambulances waited for hours Monday at a Halifax hospital, part of a trend physicians and the union that represents paramedics say is worrisome and could put people's health at risk. 

Dr. Mark Taylor, executive medical director for the Nova Scotia Health Authority, said across the central zone, there were 25 per cent more ambulance calls than normal yesterday. Eighteen ambulances waited at the Dartmouth General Hospital. 

The ambulances sat outside the emergency rooms because the paramedics assigned to them had to stay with patients who were waiting to be seen.

Dr. Mark Taylor, executive medical director for the central zone of the Nova Scotia Health Authority, says the emergency room at the QEII Health Sciences Centre saw 253 patients Monday. (CBC)

Taylor said as staff worked to admit patients, one patient and the ambulance crew that brought them in were waiting for 10 hours. He said the issue was more patients than normal — many frail and elderly — were waiting to get in. 

"Yesterday was astonishingly busy," he said, adding that most patients arriving by ambulance didn't have to wait more than two hours.

"It's not acceptable. They shouldn't be waiting at all, but it's very common for them to be waiting that long or even longer. We try to minimize it as much as possible."

25% more people went to ER

On Monday, the Halifax Infirmary emergency department saw 253 patients, up from the usual 180. 

"When you get 25 per cent larger than normal than the place is designed to take, then it's very difficult to deal with that volume as a sudden peak," said Taylor.

"Things are still very chaotic," said Dr. Sam Campbell, chief of emergency medicine in the Halifax infirmary, said Tuesday. 

He said overall, his department is seeing 25 per cent more patients than it was just five years ago and on average, patients are older. 

Worries about 'catastrophic event'

The union that represents paramedics has been sounding the alarm for weeks about the time it takes to admit patients.

Terry Chapman, the business manager and spokesperson for the union that represents Nova Scotia paramedics, said the situation is making it impossible for paramedics to meet their target of responding to emergencies within nine minutes. 

"That cannot happen if there's a call in Wolfville and an ambulance has to come from 100 kilometres," he said. "That may end up in a catastrophic event for someone."  

The union that represents paramedics says multiple ambulances, like these ones outside the Cobequid Health Centre in Lower Sackville in the fall of 2017, have to wait hours for patients to be admitted. (Submitted by IUOE Local 727)

At one point last week, Chapman said the only ambulance assigned to Cape Breton was waiting at the hospital in Antigonish. 

In another case, an ambulance in Milford, in Hants County, was covering the Annapolis Valley and Kings County because crews from Wolfville ambulances and the three ambulances stationed in Windsor were tied up, Chapman said. 

"At least 50 per cent of the week, every week, communities across the province are without ambulance services in their community and ambulances have to come from very far away," he said. 

EHS urges people to still call 911

Jeff Fraser, director of provincial operations for Emergency Health Services, said "there's no doubt" it can take longer than nine minutes for an ambulance to arrive but he doesn't know of any cases in recent weeks where someone's health has been affected by the time it took an ambulance to response.

Jeff Fraser, director of provincial operations for Emergency Health Services, says people should not hesitate to call 911. (Submitted by Jeff Fraser)

He said once people call 911, staff at EHS's medical communications centre can start giving instructions over the phone, before an ambulance shows up. 

"We want people to make sure if they see or experience an emergency, do not hesitate to call 911," Fraser said.  "We have a priority system in place. It might take us a little longer, but we will get to you."

He also said staff are always monitoring where ambulances are and can put more on the road if needed.

In the long term, Fraser said health-care providers are working to keep more people out of hospitals. In the meantime, he said they're working with hospital staff to try to ensure patients are admitted as soon as possible. 

The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727 started a social media campaign a month ago, highlighting cases they call a #codecritical, an area where there are no available ambulances. 

Paramedics often working long shifts

The union said it's also taking a toll on workers who may spend the majority of their day at a Halifax hospital before driving for hours to get home long after their 12-hour shift has ended. 

Chapman said because they're still working, they also respond to any nearby emergencies on their way back to their home base. 

"It's very, very stressful. They don't get the mandated rest that we think they should have," he said. 

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past nine years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be reached at elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

With files from Carolyn Ray