Spike in patient numbers has Ontario hospitals bursting at seams

Hospitals across Ontario have been near or overcapacity in recent months. Administrators point to flu, weather and an aging population as factors that have led to bed shortages and increased stress on front-line staff.

Record number of patients at hospitals caused by host of illnesses, including a heavy spike in influenza cases

Hospitals across Ontario have been near or overcapacity in recent months with some regions admitting record numbers of patients. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

A nasty strain of flu, cold weather and an aging population are all factors behind a spike in over-capacity issues in hospitals across Ontario, according to administrators in all corners of the province.

From Sudbury in the north to Windsor in the south, hospitals are bursting at the seams. Grand River Hospital in Kitchener has seen back-to-back months of a record number of patients.

In some regions, patients are put in temporary beds set up in hospital lounges.

Windsor Regional Hospital is one of the latest to sound the alarm as officials there have postponed an estimated 20 surgeries, while dozens of people are admitted without available beds.

Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas (CBC)

The latest struggles are a continuation of problems highlighted in November by Ontario's Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, who slammed the government for the length of time patients waited for hospital beds.

Ministry of Health officials did not provide the latest over-capacity numbers, but hospital officials were quick to provide figures. Too many of them are not given enough resources, according to Ontario's NDP health critic France Gélinas. 

"Hallway nursing will never be good, quality care," she told CBC News.

'Sub-par quality of care'

Hospitals need enough funding to keep capacity levels at 85 per cent in order to leave room for unusual spikes in illnesses, Gélinas explained. 

"They have no margin (of error) at all," she said. "As soon as something happens in your community, your hospitals are overcrowded and then you see the effect with the long waits in emergency rooms, long stays in emergency rooms, cancelled surgeries and then really sub-par quality care in our hospitals." 

Staff at Health Sciences North, located in Sudbury, has had to turn hospital hallways and lobbies into temporary patient rooms as they grapple with overcrowding issues.

"It's not ideal, but as the only hospital in Greater Sudbury, we're not really in a position to say 'We can't admit you,'" wrote spokesman Dan Lessard in an email to CBC. "We've been operating in a state of overcapacity on a regular basis since last December. It's stressful for patients, their families, doctors, and clinical staff."

A hospital building
Health Sciences North in Sudbury, Ont. (Submitted by Health Science North)

The hospital has managed to only cancel a few surgeries thanks to creative scheduling, according to Lessard, but patients still suffer.

In Windsor, the cost of operating with more patients than beds is quickly approaching $2 million, according to figures from hospital CEO David Musyj.

"We were hoping we were hitting a lull," he said. "But it's back and it came back, unfortunately, with a vengeance."

The struggle not to cancel surgeries is also being fought in Kitchener where Mark Karjaluoto from the Grand River Hospital said staff have seen back-to-back months with record numbers of patients.

"We have opened a range of medical, surgical and complex continuing care inpatient beds to support care," he said, noting the hospital had been busy. "January was another record breaker with 6,246 visits."

Not just a small city problem

Larger centres including Ottawa and Toronto have also been faced with more patients than beds. 

Ottawa Hospital's two campuses are both operating at 113 per cent capacity. Officials say they have 154 patients who no longer require care, but are still in hospital while they wait for a bed in a long-term care home. 

"We have seen an increase in emergency department visits in the past few weeks, in part due to high volumes of respiratory illness in the community," a hospital spokesman said.

University Health Network in Toronto reported similar problems at its hospitals, largely because of an aging demographic and a growing population. 

The auditor general outlined similar results in her scathing report. Lysyk found more than 4,100 of Ontario's 31,000 hospital beds are occupied unnecessarily by patients waiting for long-term care or home care, contributing to the delays. 

A survey of three large community hospitals also found they were dramatically missing their Health Ministry targets for getting 90 per cent of patients into beds.

Lessard said Sudbury's position as the major medical centre for northeastern Ontario has played a role in high patient numbers, along with an aging population and a shortage of other "appropriate settings" for health care such as clinics or home care.