As Canada’s health-care system grapples with yet another season of respiratory illnesses, doctors are raising the alarm over its ability to stay afloat.
Emergency departments across the country are overwhelmed with patients waiting many hours to receive care due to a mix of factors including staffing shortages, overcrowding and a surge of viruses at this time of year.
ER doctors say this season is the worst they’ve ever seen, and are now calling for real action to fix the crisis plaguing Canada’s health-care system.
“The situations from coast to coast to coast, they’re horrific and inhumane,” said Dr. Trevor Jain, an ER doctor with the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians (CAEP).
Both Jain and Dr. Kathleen Ross from the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) spoke as part of a panel on The West Block with Global News’ Eric Sorensen Friday. The CMA released a statement Thursday saying unless major systemic changes are made, the problem in emergency departments will keep unfolding.
“I mean, the last 20 years, the emergency departments have become all things for everybody all the time because we’re always open, and the system is starting to reflect that crisis,” Jain said. “You know, if you talk to any emergency department, we can stand being busy. We don’t mind being busy, but overcrowding kills and that’s what we’re starting to see,”
Jain says Canadians are waiting in emergency departments with serious illnesses for 10 to up to 32 hours. The CMA also reported an approximate 20-hour wait time in some parts of the country. Two Canadian patients have even died this season waiting in an ER at a hospital on Montreal’s south shore.
“We really have a crisis of access on our hands now,” Ross said in the panel.
She says exponentially increasing team-based care and access to hospital care at home to help offload treatment is essential in the year ahead.
Team-based primary care involves a group of health-care professionals, such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists and social workers, who collaborate closely to provide comprehensive and patient-centred care.
“We have to look at our staffing issues. We need to train more physicians and nurses, and we need to retain more physicians and nurses. And that means making sure that our workplaces are safe, secure and well supported,” Ross said. “Certainly patients are waiting a long time, certainly patients are suffering, but those of us providing care are suffering as well. And that leads to more burnout and more turnover.”
On Wednesday, British Columbia’s health minister, Adrian Dix, said 10,435 patients — a record number — were in hospital Tuesday night, many of them with a respiratory illness.
Emergency rooms elsewhere in the country were also over capacity as rates of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which can be serious for infants and older adults, have climbed steadily.
In Quebec, emergency rooms were at 137 per cent capacity on average, with Health Minister Christian Dubé saying about 1,900 people a day were visiting ERs, double the number compared to last year.
Ross says funding from the federal government established about a year ago could help address some of the challenges ERs are facing.
In February 2023, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered premiers across the country a bilateral deal as part of a $196 billion, 10 year national health accord.
B.C., Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Alberta are the only provinces that have signed on the deal with Ottawa so far.
When it comes to the question of whether other provinces will get on board, Ross says she thinks “Canadians are really losing patience.”
Jain agreed, saying: “Regardless of their postal code, Canadians deserve timely access to acute care services.”
— with files from Global News’ Katie Dangerfield.