Alberta’s pediatric emergency rooms are facing unusually long wait times and, although health officials say the sickest children are getting care quickly, some front-line healthcare workers say concerned about patient safety.
Wait times approaching 10 hours have become quite common in recent weeks at Alberta Children’s Hospital and the United Nurses of Alberta said they are aware of a day when the estimated wait time at the Calgary hospital passed at 4 p.m.
Edmonton’s Stollery Children’s Hospital is also under severe pressure.
“The past two weeks and especially the past seven days have been some of the busiest times I have seen in the 10 years I have worked at Children’s Hospital,” said Dr Stephen Freedman, doctor. in the emergency department of Alberta Children’s Hospital and a professor at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.
“Some children wait quite regularly, sometimes eight to nine hours most days, for the last two weeks, if they’re very low acuity.”
Freedman said frontline staff were doing their best to keep up with the influx, adding that the most urgent cases are prioritized and ideally seen by a doctor within 20 or 30 minutes.
Backups begin as soon as families arrive at the emergency room. Queues to see the triage nurse, who assesses patients and determines who should be treated first, have recently appeared at Alberta Children’s Hospital.
According to Freedman, a number of factors have combined to create “a perfect storm” – including high levels of COVID-19 circulating in the community and a late flu season with cases peaking alongside health measures now. public have disappeared.
“There are a large number of children coming to the emergency room. A lot of them have to be there.”
According to Freedman, there is also a continuing increase in the number of children in mental health crisis and a shortage of beds to care for them. Staffing shortages also play a role, as does the continued need, due to COVID-19, to wear personal protective equipment that takes time to put on and take off, he said.
ER waits ‘dangerous’, says Edmonton doctor
“I’m very concerned,” said Dr. Shazma Mithani, an Edmonton emergency physician who works at Stollery Children’s Hospital.
She said the delays were longer than anything she had seen before, with some children waiting up to seven or eight hours to see her.
“It’s something that we discuss every day as a group in terms of what we can do to keep things safe and to avoid any bad outcome.”
Calling the situation “dangerous”, she said patients can wait 45 to 90 minutes to see the triage nurse to be assessed.
“The system is so stressed right now that a bad thing could potentially happen today in the waiting room… It’s essentially impossible to make sure someone doesn’t get sicker when he’s sitting in the waiting room,” Mithani said.
“The biggest worry is a child dying. None of us want to see that happen and it would certainly be an extreme scenario. But it’s always the worry that’s been on our minds.”
At the Stollery, an additional space is now regularly open to deal with the overflow of patients in the emergency room.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) has acknowledged the increased pressure on children’s hospitals and said the sickest patients will always be seen first.
“AHS is under significant pressure on our healthcare system, particularly our emergency departments and emergency departments, due to high volumes of critically ill patients and the impact of COVID-19, which includes an increased number of patients requiring hospitalization, admissions limited to certain hospital units due to infection control requirements and increased staff absences,” AHS spokesman James Wood said in a statement sent via email to CBC News.
“This means that emergency department wait times sometimes reach peak levels in the winter, which impacts Alberta Children’s Hospital and Stollery Children’s Hospital.”
Queues, supervised waiting rooms for the sickest children
The health authority said the spike in children with viral illnesses is causing temporary lines outside Calgary’s emergency room.
“This has been a major factor in the temporary queues outside Alberta Children’s Hospital [emergency department] as we need to isolate patients who are showing symptoms of flu-like illness and therefore need more physical space to allow for safe distancing,” Wood said.
“When there is a queue, the nurses monitor the queue and the waiting room to ensure that no patient is in critical condition. We are working on a system to bring the outside queue inside the building. Our goal is to make sure everyone is inside and waiting for as little time as possible.”
Wood said AHS is working to address the issue by moving staff to areas that need them the most and prioritizing healthcare workers for COVID-19 testing to minimize staffing shortages.
He also urges parents to visit a website, designed to help them decide when they should take their child to the emergency room and when they can safely be cared for at home.
The United Nurses of Alberta calls the situation “desperate”, saying it has received reports of wait times of up to 16 hours at Alberta Children’s Hospital.
“If you’re a parent, you can imagine any wait time with a very seriously ill child is scary…it’s also terrifying for the staff,” said union president Heather Smith, who noted that all large hospitals in Alberta face similar pressures. .
Smith said the long wait times — though exacerbated by the recent influx of patients — are a symptom of a larger problem in the system that needs to be addressed.
“When you have 100% or more occupancy, which is what our system works at, [that] is a clear indication that we do not have enough places for patients.”