Plea from an ER doctor: Give our stretched health-care resources a fighting chance

Social distancing will be hard, but the alternative is devastating for the overall health of Canadians, writes Dr. Taylor Lougheed.

Social distancing will be hard, but the alternative is devastating for the overall health of Canadians

The seriousness of COVID-19 has been lost on some people, and they continue to operate under the misguided assumption that their lives should go on as usual, says Dr. Taylor Lougheed. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Dr. Taylor Lougheed, an Ontario physician practising in family, emergency, sport, and cannabinoid medicine. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I am an emergency room physician. Every time I go in to work a shift, I represent one small piece of the front line of our health-care system that works to keep Canadians healthy.

I work in a department that often has a full waiting room, and a wait time of several hours to be seen by a doctor. I work alongside an experienced and compassionate team that often finds itself short-staffed and dealing with high volumes of cases. When patients are admitted they often have nowhere to go, as the rest of the hospital is full.

Each year during flu season, we are stretched even further, often beyond safe capacity. Colleagues are burning out with "moral injury," frustrated by an inability to offer the type of care they are trained, and want, to provide. Patients rightly express frustration at long waits, and hallway medicine has become an uncomfortable new norm.

For years now, the direction our health-care system has been heading in has had me worried.

And then COVID-19 arrived.

The federal government is urging Canadians to abide by rules for social distancing and self isolation or they will enact measures to enforce them, including criminal penalties. 1:59

As it ramped up and started its march across the world, we have seen unprecedented reactions: sports leagues shut down, award shows and conferences cancelled, the WHO declaring a pandemic, and governments announcing states of emergency.

And yet, despite these alarming announcements, the message has somehow been lost on some people who continue to operate under the misguided assumption that their lives should go on as usual. That gatherings and parties should still be held. That this outbreak isn't serious.

Although it's true that older patients and those with illnesses are the most likely to get sick with COVID-19, it's not just our elderly population who are being hospitalized. And all the other health problems that afflict people every day and for which care is necessary haven't somehow ceased with the spread of COVID-19.

At my hospital the intensive care unit (ICU) beds are already full, and we don't even have a positive COVID-19 case yet. Smaller hospitals have no ICU beds — if they have a cluster of sick COVID-19 patients, what do they do? Where do those people go?

Doctors answer your questions about the coronavirus in Canada, including when to go to the hospital and how health care workers can protect their families. 5:14

Canada has about 10 to 12 ICU beds per 100,000 people, depending on the region. In comparison, Italy has about 12 and its health-care system was quickly overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases. It's argued that Italy has been hit hard by COVID-19 because of a higher median age of 45.5, but Canada isn't far off that with a median age of 42.2.

If we don't flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections in Canada, we will far exceed the capacity of our already overburdened health-care system.

And if hospitals are overrun, everyone requiring medical care will be affected. Sprain your ankle? Break a bone? Suffer a heart attack? Even common emergency visits, elective surgeries or specialist consults will become stressful or nearly impossible. There will be an impact on everyone.

So what can you do?

Stay home. Cancel plans. Only go places if absolutely necessary. Text, call, and video-chat with loved ones. Check in on each other. Protect those most vulnerable around you by helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Social distancing will be hard, but the alternative is devastating. Please give our already stretched health-care resources a fighting chance.

About the Author

Dr. Taylor Lougheed is an Ontario physician practicing in family, emergency, sport, and cannabinoid medicine.


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