Wait times at Winnipeg emergency rooms ticked up slightly in April, despite efforts to improve patient flow, officials with Shared Health say.
Numbers released by Shared Health and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) Thursday show median wait times for patients at emergency and urgent care sites in Winnipeg rose to 2.87 hours last month, an increase of roughly four minutes over the month before.
Ninetieth percentile waits increased by about two minutes from the previous month, to 7.62 hours, according to the data.
“We know it’s not where we want it to be and we’re actively working on it,” said WRHA CEO Mike Nader, telling reporters at a Thursday press conference the April numbers don’t reflect recent efforts to reduce the wait times.
Nader said those initiatives include moving more alternate level of care patients out of hospital and into long-term care, in an effort to free up beds in other parts of the hospital for admissions from emergency and urgent care.
He said there were 112 such patients, which Shared Health described as “frequently long-stay inpatients” in Winnipeg hospitals Wednesday, down from a daily average of 151 in April.
Nader said more beds have been opened up by by moving stable patients who originally came to Winnipeg hospitals from outside the city, back to to their “home” health regions. He said as of Thursday morning 162 patients had been repatriated in May, up from 139 in all of April.
“We have started to see some improvement and we’ve turned the ship — I hope — in terms of what we should expect to see with regards to emergency room wait times,” he said.
In a memo to staff last month, Nader detailed other solutions the health authority was working towards, including changing ambulance protocols to redirect less serious patients to urgent care instead of emergency, starting a pilot to test new patients for COVID-19 in emergency and urgent care departments, and refining the virtual outpatient program and inter-region transfer protocols.
Nader said the latest efforts to reduce wait times — begun in the last few weeks — appear to be working, telling reporters the median wait time at Winnipeg ERs has averaged 2.55 hours in the last seven days.
But Dr. Shawn Young, chief operating officer at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre, warns it could be some time before wait times return to baseline.
He said he doesn’t expect the May wait time report to be much different than the April report released Thursday, due in part to staffing issues.
Young told reporters hospitals are still seeing higher than normal rates of sick days among staff, caused in some measure by COVID-19.
“Until we can actually stabilize that work force, it’s going to be difficult to predict when we actually do get to our baseline,” he said.
Adding to the problems caused by the sick time are vacancies left by retiring staff, Young said.
Nader said vacancies are increasing, and are currently sitting at 14.5 per cent across roles in Winnipeg alone.
The province has previously said it is working to attract new staff and efforts are ongoing to train current staff for new roles.
Young said having staff return to their regular duties after many were redeployed during the pandemic will also help.
Young stressed the longer wait times at Winnipeg ERs aren’t affecting the most sick patients.
He said patients who are acutely ill, those “who need to be treated within minutes to hours,” have not seen a delay in access times.
Both Young and Nader said officials continue to meet with staff, doctors and site leaders to hear concerns and share ideas about how to improve patient flow and reduce wait times.
“These are long-standing issues that have existed for years and made exponentially worse by the pandemic,” Young said.
“We know we still have a lot of work to do.”