'It's becoming a powder keg:' Nurses union says Saskatoon patient's death sign of larger problem

A union representing more than 10,000 nurses says an incident involving a Saskatoon patient's death is an example of systemic issues in the health care system.

Sask. Association of Nurses says patient died due to overcrowding in emergency room

Saskatchewan Union of Nurses president Tracy Zambory says a patient died in a Saskatoon emergency room due to overcrowding. (CBC)

A union representing more than 10,000 nurses says an incident involving a Saskatoon patient's death is an example of systemic issues in the health care system.

The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN) said a patient had died in a Saskatoon emergency room due to overcrowding and short staffing.

"It's becoming a powder keg of a dangerous situation," said union president Tracy Zambory.

"Because of the short staffing, because of the overcrowding, a patient has passed away because they did not get timely care."

Zambory would not provide further details of the patient's death due to patient privacy concerns, as well as a desire to protect nurses who had come forward to the union.

However, she said the death was a sign of larger, systemic issues that can be seen across the province.

"Our members are telling us that they are overworked, overcrowded and understaffed," she said. "They're becoming burned out."

Call for comprehensive strategy

Zambory said the province needs to look at baseline staffing of nurses in emergency rooms. She also said issues like patients with mental health or addictions issues need to be addressed.

"We have a crystal meth crisis in this province and many of those people are presenting at the emergency room," she said. "We should be [looking at] having a comprehensive strategy on how to deal with that."

Health Minister Jim Reiter said the death had triggered a critical incident review, where a team of medical professionals will be examining the circumstances under how the patient died.

He said preliminary discussions indicate the death was not a result of the care the patient received.

Health Minister Jim Reiter acknowledged that situations in local emergency rooms are 'serious.' (Rob Kruk / CBC)

"That doesn't mean the situation we're in right now is okay," Reiter told reporters at the Saskatchewan Legislative Building. "We recognize the seriousness we have in emergency rooms."

Reiter said overcrowding conditions in hospitals seem to be improving in Regina, but Saskatoon's numbers are still problematic.

Earlier this week, an internal Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) memo leaked to the provincial Opposition NDP describes a critical lack of beds in Saskatoon hospitals and asks for support from across the province.

The memo said 79 patients were awaiting placement at Royal University Hospital and St. Paul's Hospital.

Reiter said overcrowding issues tend to go through peaks and valleys, although the past week and a half have been "far more problematic" compared to the same point in the year in 2018.

He's asked for a high-level review to be conducted to deal with the situation. He called overcrowding a complex issue that won't be solved by hiring more doctors in the ER.

"It's a case of admissions, it's a case of discharges, they need to make sure they're all done properly," he said. 

Reiter said people who still need medical care but don't necessarily need to be in a hospital might be able to be moved to other facilities, such as facilities that offer rapid access to people with drug addiction.

Very serious issues

Meanwhile, the Opposition NDP said the provincial government has been resistant to speaking about the health care system.

"They are very quick to try to sweep things under the rug, to move away from very serious issues that need to be examined," said NDP health critic Vicki Mowat.

She said the province has seen overcapacity issues worsening for years, and ERs are under increasing pressure.

"We know that our emergency room wait times have increased," she said. "The year over year numbers for Regina is 22 per cent, for Saskatoon is 20 per cent. We've been raising these issues for years."

Opposition Health Critic Vicki Mowat says that wait times are increasing in emergency rooms. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Capacity questions

Dr. Rashaad Hansia, physician executive with the health authority's integrated urban health unit, said a review was generally only held in rare and uncommon circumstances.

"All of the circumstances around the incident are looked at," he said. "Certainly, capacity would be looked at."

Dr. Hansia couldn't say how much information in the review would be released to the public, but he said it's a very important issue.

"Any time that patients have to wait for care, that creates the potential for harm," he said. "That's not acceptable for us."

Hansia said mental health and addiction was a big issue in Saskatchewan, and was an important part of the puzzle.

He said that anyone who feels they need to go to the emergency room should still feel free to do so. 

"Those ERs are there to support patient care, and we are there to support them."