Calgary doctors call on the province for change amid skyrocketing ER wait times

May 24 2023, 9:27 pm

Almost 200 Calgary ER doctors have come together to add their voices to the “growing concerns of the state of healthcare in our province.”

In a letter signed by 192 Calgary doctors, they say “The wait time in Calgary’s Emergency Departments has skyrocketed, with patients sometimes waiting up to 15 hours to be seen by a doctor,” and that “signs of a capacity crisis are everywhere.” 

“Sections of our emergency departments are routinely closed due to a lack of our highly skilled specialized emergency nurses,” reads the letter. “It is now common to have 40 to 50 people waiting to be seen by a doctor at any given time.”

The doctors outlined three critical concerns that need to be addressed: lack of primary care in Alberta, lack of hospital beds, and critical healthcare labour shortages.

On the lack of primary care in Alberta, the Calgary doctors write, “Four years ago we could proudly say there were enough family doctors for every Calgarian. Fast forward to today and it is estimated that 650,000 Albertans are without a family doctor. This is due, in no small part, to the destabilization of primary care through government policy.”

According to the letter, doctors have been incentivized to work in specialized roles instead of in family medicine clinics. The doctors say the province is having trouble attracting doctors to Alberta and that is leading patients to come to emergency rooms for help.

When patients are unable to access a family doctor for their medical concerns, they present to the emergency department as their last resort, seeking help. Patients are often sicker than they would have been had they received timely and comprehensive care by a family doctor.”

On the lack of hospital beds, the doctors write, “Calgary hospitals often function at over 100% capacity. This is a complex problem with multiple causes, but is exacerbated by many patients admitted to the hospital who are unable to be discharged due to a scarcity of long-term care spaces.”

They say sometimes emergency in-patients (EIP) can take up to 80% of available beds as they wait for appropriate beds in other areas.

When these patients remain in the emergency department, their care is delayed, and puts increased demands on our emergency room nurses. This can cause unfavourable nurse to patient ratios and competing demands for their time. From the patient’s perspective, languishing in the emergency department for days must be a horrific and inhumane experience. Sadly, these patients may suffer poor outcomes and significant morbidity.”

The doctors state their last critical issue, critical healthcare labour shortages, could be the result of how nurses have been treated.

During the pandemic, emergency nurses were mandated to work overtime at the end of already gruelling shifts. Due to significant labour shortages, their holiday requests have often been denied. Further, the understandable frustration that is felt by patients waiting long hours to see a doctor is often directed at our frontline nursing staff.

“Amidst this situation, the government suggested a nursing pay cut. The cumulative effect has been that many experienced emergency nurses have decreased to part-time work, have gone to work as emergency nurses in other provinces/ countries or have left the emergency department altogether, creating an ongoing shortage of nursing staff.”

The doctors warn that these conditions have led to unsafe and stressful working environments. And they aren’t happy with how Alberta Health Services has handled the situation.

Alberta Health Services has made the decision to hire temporary travel nurses, who are paid 2-3x more per hour than a permanent nurse and they often lack emergency-specific training. This has further fueled discontent amongst the highly trained and hard-working nurses that have devoted their careers to emergency medicine.”

When reached for comment, Alberta Health Services said, “We acknowledge the concerns expressed by some of our physicians. AHS has reached out directly and offered to meet.”

The authors of the letter are calling on the government for the help that is needed.

“First, we need the Alberta Government and Alberta Health Services to recognize the current crisis. This crisis will require resources and innovative solutions to move forward.”

The doctors also state they hope healthcare is a top priority for the political parties in next week’s election.

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