Doctors say Sask. emergency departments understaffed, overcapacity, struggling to provide care

As COVID-19 hospitalizations rise, emergency room doctors say their departments are overflowing with patients, compromising care.

Emergency departments in Regina, Saskatoon caring for patients in extra spaces, say doctors

Emergency department doctors say that patients continue to fill hospital beds above capacity, as less physicians are available to take care of them. (Cory Herperger/CBC News)

Hospital emergency departments in Saskatchewan continue to struggle amidst staff shortages and overflowing hospital wards, doctors in the province say.

"It puts everybody in a situation where our ability to care for people is compromised, so we can only care for the very sickest people," said Dr. Brian Geller, a primary care physician and an emergency department doctor at both Regina hospitals.

When patients can't be sent through to the usual inpatient care beds, they're kept in emergency room beds, Geller said. 

"We don't have the capacity to care for emergencies anymore."

When Saskatchewan stopped posting daily COVID-19 data, the highest reported daily total of people in hospital with the virus to that point was 384 provincewide.

Last Thursday, the most recent weekly update to the province's COVID-19 numbers said there were 403 people in hospital with the virus, just shy of the record of 410 in mid-February.

Saskatchewan has a rate of 35.6 hospitalizations per 100,000 people, the second highest rate west of the Atlantic provinces, behind only Manitoba.

That's according to data compiled by CBC using the most recent updates from the provinces — which range in dates from April 9 to April 20 — and population data from the 2021 census.

The Saskatoon acute care capacity dashboard said that at about 1:30 p.m. CST on Wednesday, there were 34 overcapacity beds occupied at the Royal University Hospital and another two occupied at St. Paul's Hospital.

Geller said he'd seen more people in hospital with COVID-19 this past weekend than he can recall.

In one shift, he saw more than six children younger than two with COVID-19 symptoms. He said while none of the toddlers were admitted to the hospital, parents were bringing them to the emergency department because they were worried.

More patients, fewer physicians

Geller said the hospitals in Regina have a tight bench when it comes to emergency room physicians.

For example, the Regina General emergency department typically has four or five physicians working, but this past weekend was down to two, he said.

"That also affects our capacity and our ability to care for people … really, at that point, we're left with looking after only the most ill people," he said.

It's a similar story in Saskatoon, according to Dr. Paul Olszynski, an emergency room physician in the city.

Olszynski said the department is suffering from a staffing shortage, partially because kids are bringing COVID-19 from school and keeping physicians at home with illness.

That opens shifts up and often pulls people who could be at home regenerating from their own shifts back to the hospital.

"It's exhausting because people are working their shifts, they need a little bit of down time and then they're getting called in," he told Stefani Langenegger, host of CBC Saskatchewan's The Morning Edition.

LISTEN | Saskatoon ER doctor talks about the endless strain on hospitals' emergency departments

COVID-19 has come in waves, but it has never really let up at our province's hospitals. Today, we get the perspective of emergency room Dr. Paul Olszynski on the sixth wave.

The stress is compounded by more patients.

"We're in this kind of crunch situation where we have people coming and nowhere to see them," he said.

"It means the normal procedures of care are being compromised."

In an email, the Saskatchewan Health Authority said that hospitals across the province are experiencing capacity challenges, especially in emergency departments.

"While our health-care teams are doing their best to provide high levels of care during this time, it is important to note that many of these challenges predate the COVID pandemic," it said. 

Olszynski said there's been situations where patients are being care for in ambulatory offices near the emergency department or in old custodial spaces.

"We are trying to still see those patients but we're trying to do it with really, very little capacity," he said.

In Regina, Geller said paramedics are regularly asked to hold patients in the ambulance bay until there's room for a bed in the emergency department.

In the week leading up to April 12, Geller said the hospital called for help 19 times. That means physicians were concerned that the department had more patients that it could safely handle and asked for other available doctors to assist.

Physicians burnt out

Geller said that in his 30 years as a physician in Saskatchewan, he's never heard so many colleagues, typically young physicians and nurses, so "unhappy" with their career choice. He said he's heard of some looking for other options.

A recent survey from the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses found nearly three in every five nurses considered stepping away from registered nursing since April 2021.

Dr. Eben Strydom, president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association and a family doctor in Melfort, said he's aware of city hospitals struggling with capacity issues.

He said Saskatchewan and Canadian physicians have done an "enormous" job during the pandemic and thanked them.

"It's challenging, it continues to be challenging," he said. "There's no escape from it for workers in the system."

He said there's support for physicians in the system but, unfortunately, "that doesn't change our circumstances."


  • A previous version of this story stated Dr. Brian Geller had been a physician in the province for three years. In fact, it is 30 years.
    Apr 21, 2022 10:30 AM CT

With files from CBC Saskatchewan's The Morning Edition


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