Ontario hospitals sounding alarm over potential flu season 'capacity crisis'

After logging record-long wait times at Ontario hospitals this summer, the health care industry is warning that a busy flu season could push hospitals into a crisis.

Wait times this summer were the highest since tracking started nine years ago

The Ontario Hospital Association says wait times recorded this summer are the highest since the province began tracking them nine years ago. (CBC)

A summer of record wait times at Ontario hospitals has prompted fears about a potential "capacity crisis" during the upcoming flu season.

In a statement released Monday, the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) said wait times recorded this summer were the highest since the province began tracking nine years ago, and on par with the peak flu season wait times normally seen in January and February.

"Many hospitals have operated through the summer under very unusual and worrying surge conditions," wrote OHA President and CEO Anthony Dale in the statement.

At St. Michael's Hospital in downtown Toronto, the emergency department has admitted 30-40 extra patients every day this summer, according to Dr. Doug Sinclair, the hospital's executive vice president and chief medical officer.

Those patients have been forced to wait up to 28 hours for a bed, around eight hours more than usual.

"This is really a call to say 'let's plan better, we're seeing these volumes now, we've got a couple of months to plan, let's put some changes in place to anticipate the flu season,'" Sinclair said on Metro Morning.

Flu season 'crisis'

The OHA is warning that the increased wait times could be exacerbated once flu season begins.

"With weeks to go before flu season begins again, conditions strongly suggest that the healthcare system faces a real capacity crisis this winter without further action," the organization wrote in a statement.

Sinclair, who also works as an emergency room doctor, said the situation will likely resemble the record overcrowding many hospitals experienced during last year's flu season.

"Unfortunately I think we'll see what we saw last winter when we had the situation of patients in, as we call them, non-traditional settings being admitted," said Sinclair, referring to the use of hallways and other areas of a hospital for patient placements.

Hospitals call for more funding

Both the OHA and Sinclair point to a shortage of long term care options as a major factor in the summer wait times.

Dr. Doug Sinclair says St. Michael's Hospital has seen 30-40 extra patients per day this summer. (St. Michael's Hospital)

"The root of today's capacity challenge is that far too many frail, elderly patients can't get access to the care they really need outside the hospital setting," wrote Dale.

Sinclair explained that when patients wait for out-of-hospital care at St. Michael's, it "backs up" the emergency department, though other factors such as a growing population and patients with complex health needs have also contributed to the increased wait times.

The OHA is calling for increased provincial funding to build new capacity in hospitals and with other health care providers to improve the winter outlook.

"We had our budgets frozen for a number of years to deal with the overall fiscal situation in Ontario and we need some more relief," Sinclair added.

Regardless, he said, the busy summer may help hospitals better prepare for flu season.

"We think that with a couple of months of planning with our partners with some mitigation we can do better," Sinclair said.


Nick Boisvert is a multimedia journalist at the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He previously covered municipal politics for CBC News in Toronto. You can reach him at