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You will be seen, LHSC reassures patients amid high emergency department wait times

Ambulances sit in front of the emergency department at Victoria Hospital on Nov. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Robins

Officials with London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) are reassuring patients that despite lengthy wait times in the city’s emergency departments (ED), all patients who come for treatment will be tended to.

The comment comes as many hospitals across the province, and across Canada, report long and increasing emergency departments wait times.

Patients spent an average of 2.1 hours waiting for a first assessment at Ontario emergency departments in May, according to recent provincial figures, and spent an average of 20.1 hours in emergency before being admitted to the hospital.

In London, patients waited an average of three hours at University Hospital and 2.5 hours at Victoria Hospital for a first assessment, and an average of 18.5 and 15.1 hours, respectively, in the ED before being admitted to hospital.

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“Certainly our emergency wait times are increasing and have increased over the course of the pandemic. We are seeing all patients who do present to the ED, but our wait times are increasing throughout the summer,” said Dr. Christy MacDonald, city-wide chief and western division chair in LHSC’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

“If you’re here for trauma or if you’re here for chest pain, your wait time certainly will be far shorter … versus if you’re coming for something that’s less acute, like a sore knee, for instance — not a traumatic sore knee, but just a sore knee. You may wait a longer period of time, which may be in the hours.”

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London’s first-assessment wait time is higher than the provincial average and is the highest in the immediate London area, but is still below nearly a dozen other hospitals. Windsor hospital’s Metropolitan Campus saw the longest average first-assessment wait time in May at 5.1 hours.

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The city’s ED-to-hospital admittance time is below the provincial average, and is below that recorded at nearly 50 other Ontario hospitals. In May, Hamilton’s West Lincoln Memorial Hospital recorded an average admittance wait time of 51.7 hours, the longest seen in the province that month.

The growing wait times across the province are being blamed on, among other things, higher patient volumes, COVID-19 hospital outbreaks, surgical backlogs, and staffing challenges due to COVID absenteeism, and as burned out health-care workers retire or leave the profession.

“In the emergency department, we’ve been front line since day one. Our staff are tired. They work hard. They’re a wonderful team, but we’re all tired,” MacDonald said.

“I think people are reassessing what their needs are in life and where they want to spend their time working. We’re seeing that across the country,” she continued. “We continue to hire, we continue to retain our staff and really pull together as a team, but yes, everyone is certainly tired.”

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In addition, McDonald attributes the higher wait times to the more complex medical issues observed in patients who may have deferred receiving medical attention during the pandemic.

“The patients coming to (emergency departments) are far more complicated … their medical issues are far more complicated. Instead of having chest pain just due to heart (issues), you may be a transplant patient who’s undergoing special treatment coming in with chest pain,” MacDonald said.

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The ability or inability to seek care over summer holidays and summer vacations was another factor, she said.

“Impacted patients not having family doctors or not as able to see family doctors for whatever reason, patients will come to the emergency, which is appropriate. We’re here to provide care.”

Staff shortages prompted temporary emergency department closures in smaller Ontario locales earlier this month, including in Clinton, Listowel, Seaforth, St. Marys, and Wingham.

Elsewhere in Ontario, Kingston’s hospital organization announced over the weekend that it would cap at 120 the number of patients able to visit its Hotel Dieu Hospital every day as a result of staff shortages.

Emergency department staffing challenges and closures are also being seen at hospitals in other provinces.

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MacDonald said the London-area closures hasn’t increased LHSC’s patient population significantly yet. “Whether it will, I don’t really know.”

“Ideally all (EDs) would be open 24-hours a day, seven days a week, but those are not the times in which we find ourselves.”

In a subsequent statement, a LHSC spokesperson said there was no formal plan in place to reduce service within the organization “at this time.”

“However, if a clinical area is experiencing (health human resource) constraints, it may result in a temporary reduction in services until staffing stabilizes. All avenues are being pursued to mitigate this issue and prevent disruptions to service. This is our highest priority,” the statement read.

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