Emergency doctors speak out against overcrowding, wait times at B.C. hospitals
B.C. emergency doctors are hoping that a recently launched website will “give patients a voice” amid what the physicians say is a critical state in hospitals around the province.
David Haughton, the president of the B.C. Medical Association’s Section of Emergency Medicine, said the physicians are calling for a plan to ensure an adequate number of physicians to meet the demand for patients, and that emergency rooms aren’t overcrowded.
“We just want a coherent plan so that as many patients are coming there is adequate staff…and that’s checked every year, so we don’t have to every two years waste our energy waking up government to the problem,” Haughton told the Straight by phone. “And that this incredibly complex, expensive tool, which is the ER, isn’t all jammed up with patients that should be upstairs.”
Haughton, an emergency doctor at the B.C. Children’s Hospital, is one of over a dozen physicians who have recorded their experiences for the B.C. Emergency Care website, which declares an “emergency” at hospitals across the province.
In a statement recorded at 2 a.m. after being called in to help out with an overcrowded emergency room, Haughton described three cases in which children waited hours to be seen by a doctor.
“None of these children had ideal treatment—they should have been seen within 30 minutes ideally, by the standards in Canada,” he said. “But they waited four or five, six hours, sometimes in pain—certainly parents were very, very worried. This is not an ideal situation.”
In another video recorded on March 4, Lions Gate Hospital emergency room doctor Jon McGrogan called the conditions in his department that day “deplorable”.
“All our stretchers are filled with admitted patients, and we just have nowhere to see any new patients coming in,” he said.
Another emergency physician at Lions Gate Hospital, Alec Ritchie, described what he called “waiting room medicine” and having patients lined up through the hallways watch him as they wait for their turn to be seen.
“We’ve reached a point where there is this suffering in the emergency departments, because of overcrowding, because of wait times,” he said in another video featured on the site. “A Band-Aid solution is just not enough—we need a proper solution and we need it now. We just can’t stand to see the human suffering anymore, and maybe if the government doesn’t want to listen to us, maybe they’ll listen to you, a patient, someone that’s been in the emergency department.”
The emergency doctors say an estimated $10 million is needed to hire enough physicians to meet current levels of need in B.C. The five-point plan proposed by the group calls for measures including an increase in doctors in emergency rooms, annual adjustments to ER physician staffing, and standards for how long sick patients wait for an inpatient bed.
“This is not a dime to any of us—that’s not the point at all,” said Haughton. “We’re not interested in increased funding per doctor. The priority is to get it fixed.”
Haughton noted he’s concerned about the ability of emergency rooms to accommodate patient needs when they are regularly operating at maximum capacity.
“You can’t run it so lean that you’re perpetually in crisis and then you have no elasticity to handle the real catastrophe, and that’s sort of where we’re at often in most of the ERs,” he said.
According to B.C. Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid, the government recently concluded negotiations with the B.C. Medical Association on a new physician master agreement.
“There’s $90 million new dollars in that agreement,” she said in a phone interview. “There’s $20 million to be directed towards specialty services, and the BCMA does have control over how the money is dispersed.”
“What’s really difficult for us is to go into the ministry budget and find new $10 million outside of the agreement, really for any group of doctors,” she added. “If we do that, we’re going to be diverting money…from some of the very programs that the emergency doctors have said really need to happen.”
MacDiarmid said the government has expanded residential care to allow more patients to move from acute care, and recently announced a new program to integrate primary and community care, so that patients can go home from the hospital with increased supports.
“Some of the things that the doctors have got on their website are exactly what we’re doing, in terms of making those emergency departments better serve the people who truly have emergencies,” she stated.
Haughton noted the doctors plan to continue posting emergency-room stories as part of their campaign.
“We’ll keep reporting,” he said. “We’ll bear witness to what’s going on, and hopefully eventually, people will realize that this is something really easy to sort of tweak and fix, and we'll do the right thing for patients."