Wait times in Winnipeg emergency rooms continued to rise in September. Data recently released by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority show they’re higher than they were a year ago.
The median wait time for all hospital ERs and urgent care centres was just over two hours in September. That means half of patients waited longer than that to see a doctor or a nurse practitioner, and half waited less. That’s up from 1½ hours for the same month a year ago. The national average is 1.2 hours.
Measured a different way, the longest wait time for nine out of 10 patients was 5.3 hours in September, well above the four-hour wait a year earlier. At St. Boniface Hospital, it was 6.78 hours, an increase of more than two hours compared with last year.
The numbers are disappointing, considering it’s been 2½ years since the Pallister government announced sweeping changes to how city hospitals are organized, including the consolidation of acute care services at three facilities.
The first phase of the plan, which included closing Misericordia Urgent Care Centre and converting Victoria Hospital’s ER to an urgent care centre, was implemented in October 2017. The second phase, after much delay due to poor planning, took place over the past several months. Those changes included converting ERs at Seven Oaks and Concordia hospitals to urgent care centres.
Growing pains are expected during large reorganizations such as this. Consolidating acute-care services at St. Boniface, Health Sciences Centre and Grace Hospital required the transfer of entire programs — such as intensive care and surgery — between facilities. The logistical challenges were significant.
Hundreds of staff were reassigned to new units, and many are adapting to unfamiliar environments. There have been gaps in staffing as a result, including severe shortages in areas such as emergency departments. It will take time for vacancy rates to return to normal levels.
The stated objective of these changes is to ensure patients have access to treatment and specialty services in a timely manner, preferably without the need for inter-facility transfers. These and other measures, such as improving patient flow through hospitals to increase the availability of medical beds, are supposed to reduce delays and improve patient care.
ER wait times are an important measurement of that, because hospital congestion ultimately trickles down to emergency departments, which are the primary entry point for most hospital patients. When there are delays in treatment, or when hospital stays are longer than they should be, patient care backs up in ERs.
So far, there has been little to no improvement in ER wait times since the consolidation plan was announced. There was some success in the months immediately following the unveiling of the plan, but wait times have since trended upwards.
WRHA officials say this is a case of short-term pain for long-term gain. That may be. But Manitobans deserve to see progress now that all the pieces of the plan are in place. Over the next 12 to 18 months, Manitobans will find out whether this plan was the right one.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.
Updated on Tuesday, November 12, 2019 at 7:38 AM CST: Adds photo