Ontario patient ombudsman sees 33 per cent surge in complaints: report

Ontario's patient ombudsman says his office has seen a 33 per cent increase in complaints, and noted a "troubling" trend about problems accessing primary care. A nurse tends to a patient in the intensive care unit at the Bluewater Health Hospital in Sarnia, Ont., on Wednesday, January 26, 2022. .THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — Ontario’s patient ombudsman says his office has seen a 33 per cent increase in complaints, and noted a “troubling” trend in problems accessing primary care.

Craig Thompson, the province’s patient ombudsman, released his office’s annual report Wednesday with its findings.

His office received 4,388 complaints over the 2022-23 year, 3,235 of those coming through its call centre and the remainder via written complaints. Hospitals, including the four main pediatric hospitals, became overrun last fall and winter with influenza, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, patients.

The ombudsman’s data provides “insight as to what is working and, more importantly, what is not,” Thompson noted.

“What is notable, and troubling, is the significant growth in non-jurisdictional complaints that are mostly related to primary care and echo some all-too-familiar themes: people are having trouble accessing primary care, have limited options for their care, and often have nowhere to turn,” he said in the report.

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“These non-jurisdictional complaints highlight a significant and growing need being met by this office: system navigation.”

Researchers have suggested upwards of 2.2 million Ontarians are without a primary care doctor. The dearth of primary care support has a knock-on effect on the rest of the health-care system, officials have said, notably hospital emergency departments.

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The patient ombudsman’s role is to help resolve complaints from health-care patients and residents in long-term care homes and in home and community care.

The highest number of complaints, about half in total, involved hospitals, which was unsurprising, the report noted.

“As in prior years, concerns about quality of care, diagnosis/treatment and discharge or transfer were the top three complaints about hospitals,” the report said.

The ombudsman saw a significant drop in complaints that involved long-term care homes to 334 complaints this past year compared to 858 in the heart of the pandemic two years prior.

“The easing of restrictions on visiting, widespread COVID-19 vaccination, and government investments in staffing and infection prevention and control likely contributed to the return to pre-pandemic levels of complaints,” the report said.

Thompson is also concerned about the growing number of complaints outside its jurisdiction.

“A growing number of complaints touch on situations that not only fall outside of patient ombudsman’s jurisdiction but have no appropriate oversight or referral mechanism,” the report said.

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“Going forward, our office will start analyzing the data collected to better understand this unaddressed need.”

The report also highlights a few of its complaints.

“Patient ombudsman was contacted by a family member who expressed concern that their parent’s do not resuscitate order was not followed in a hospital emergency department,” the report said. “The patient was resuscitated, and the family had to make the painful decision to remove life support.”

Another patient complained about a visit to a hospital emergency department with symptoms of a heart attack. The patient waited in line to see the triage nurse.

“When the patient’s caregiver left the line to advise the triage nurse of the patient’s deteriorating state the triage’s nurse’s response was that there were 10 other people in line that could be having a heart attack and they needed to wait their turn,” the report said.

“The nurse announced to the waiting room that they were the only triage nurse and had already worked a 12-hour shift.”

The patient and caregiver left for a second hospital more than 100 kilometres away where the patient was “quickly triaged and testing confirmed a heart attack. The patient was transferred to a cardiac care unit for surgery.”

Another patient complained about an hours-long wait in an emergency department while having a miscarriage.

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“The patient described nearly passing out in the washroom while actively bleeding and being yelled at by a clerk and while another clerk rolled their eyes at her,” the report said.

“The patient described the lack of compassion and care as astounding.”

The ombudsman helped the woman connect with that hospitals’ patient relations representative, who then offered to help her access supports for perinatal loss.

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