Spin on city ER wait times enough to make you dizzy


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The latest spin from the Stefanson government is that emergency room wait times in Winnipeg have “stabilized,” even in the face of “surging” patient volumes.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/07/2022 (242 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The latest spin from the Stefanson government is that emergency room wait times in Winnipeg have “stabilized,” even in the face of “surging” patient volumes.

In reality, there’s only been a slight increase in patient volumes over the past year. Wait times in overcrowded ERs, meanwhile, have skyrocketed.

“While wait times are holding steady despite a substantial increase in patient demand, we know many patients will continue to wait longer than normal throughout these busy summer months.” Dr. Shawn Young, chief operating officer of Health Sciences Centre, is quoted as saying in a Shared Health news release this week.

For the uninitiated, Shared Health was created by the Tory government five years ago to oversee health care operations in the province (some would say to provide a buffer between the government and the public). Its political spin is government’s political spin.

The first falsehood in the news release is that ER wait times are “holding steady.” They’re not. June’s ER numbers, released Thursday, may be “stabilized” compared with April and May (they haven’t changed much over the past two months). But ER wait times have been rising dramatically over the past 18 months. They’re at their highest level in at least eight years.

Shared Health says patient volumes in May surged compared with the same month last year. Not exactly. Winnipeg’s urgent care centres and emergency rooms saw an average of 746.5 patients per day in May 2021. That climbed to 796.8 patients in May 2022 – a 6.7 per cent increase. It’s a modest uptick. What has surged during that period are ER wait times. The median wait time for urgent care centres and ERs in May 2021 was 1.73 hours. In May 2022, it was 2.97 hours – a 72 per cent increase, far outpacing the relatively minor increase in patient volumes.

The news release acknowledges wait times, while “relatively steady,” are also “significantly elevated.” They’re more than significantly elevated; they have grown to unsustainable levels and are showing no sign of improvement. That’s because the government has still refused to address the key problem behind growing ER wait times: a severe shortage of staffed hospital beds on medical wards.

Wait times haven’t exploded because of a slight increase in patients presenting to ERs. They have grown because of a botched hospital consolidation plan implemented between 2017 and 2019 that failed to ensure medical wards are adequately staffed to handle expected patient volumes. The number of staffed hospital beds under the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (excluding HSC, which falls under Shared Health) fell to 2,274 in 2020-21, from 2,398 in 2017-18.

Numerous studies, including from the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, have cited bed shortages as the main cause of ER overcrowding. When admitted patients in ERs wait days for a hospital bed, ERs back up and wait times grow. A wait time task force commissioned by the Manitoba government in 2017 came to the same conclusion.

Instead of acknowledging that and developing a long-term plan to increase hospital bed capacity, the province continues to tinker around the edges.

Shared Health says it’s taking steps to alleviate pressure on ERs, including the possibility of increasing home care services on weekends to move patients out of hospitals faster. The agency says it’s also planning to create a pool of nurses with ER experience to tap when understaffed. Those are all well and good, but they’re Band-Aid solutions.

The elephant in the room is the provincial government’s overall budget for hospitals — which has been frozen for the past several years. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a cut, which has reduced hospital capacity. Money will never solve all problems in health care, but underfunding hospitals for consecutive years while the population is growing and aging has produced catastrophic results.

Until that is solved, the problem will get worse, especially when the number of respiratory illnesses begins to rise again in the fall and winter.

There is no quick fix. Experienced doctors, nurses, doctor assistants and other staff are in short supply everywhere. Still, Manitoba needs to acknowledge the problem (and its past mistakes) and propose a detailed, long-term plan to solve it. So far, we haven’t seen that.


Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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