Saskatoon ER wait times delaying first responders, endangering public, workers say

Calling 911 in Saskatoon? You may end up waiting hours for an ambulance.

Sask. Health authority says 36 more acute care beds should ease emergency room congestion

Ambulances outside the St. Paul's Hospital emergency room. Workers are sometimes stuck waiting for hospital beds before being able to return to the ambulance. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

It's a snapshot of how emergency services are not supposed to work and front-line staff in Saskatoon say it's endangering lives.

On Sept. 20, Medavie Health fielded 80 emergency calls in a 12-hour period. The demand for ambulances was so high that five additional units were called in to assist the eight vehicles already on the street.

The problem, say staff who spoke with CBC, is that the extra ambulances sat idling outside emergency rooms because the paramedics were sitting in hospital hallways waiting for staff to take the patients and beds to free up.

These so-called "offload delays" meant some people who called 911 had to wait hours for an ambulance to arrive. At least eight calls were cancelled because of the delays.

Front line Medavie staff spoke to CBC about what's happening on the condition they not be named. The company has ordered staff not to speak and it declined repeated interview requests.

"I think it's not acceptable to call 911 and have no ambulance come for hours," one said.

"We can't keep up with the calls because we are sitting in the back halls."

An old wound

Delays creating an ambulance shortage on the street are not new, but it's unusual for front-line staff to speak out so forcefully.

Both Medavie and the then-Saskatoon Health Region have spoken publicly about the ambulance shortages in the past, but they are not speaking now.

NDP Leader Ryan Meili says it's an issue that's been left effectively unaddressed for years. He said that needs to change because people may die.

"It's not surprising but it is alarming and shouldn't be something that we should just accept as normal," he said.

"You've got people who are offering these front line services who are worried, who are experiencing the backlog in emergency rooms and who are worried about the care they are able to provide to patients."

In an email to CBC, Saskatchewan Health Authority communications officer Amanda Purcell said 36 new acute care beds at Royal University Hospital should ease the pressure.

"The 36 additional permanent acute care in-patient beds at Royal University Hospital (RUH) are expected to be ready for patients in early 2020. In the meantime, a temporary 22-bed admission transition area is being set up for the interim period until plans are complete for the new permanent in-patient beds," she wrote. 

"This will allow for transferring admitted patients out of the Emergency Department, initiating the admission process and ordering treatments while patients wait for an appropriate in-patient bed to be vacated.

Meili said this is only part of the solution.

He suggested that more long-term care and home care could open up space in hospitals. Hospitals across the province need more doctors and nurses, he said.

Meili said another solution would be to have a separate emergency system for mental health patients.

"Mental health issues, especially with the crystal meth crisis, are really dominating a lot of emergency room care," he said.

About the Author

Dan Zakreski is a reporter for CBC Saskatoon.


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