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Sudbury’s hospital overflowing

Posted: April 28, 2017

(January 11, 2017)

By: Jim Moodie, The Sudbury Star

As white stuff accumulated outside Tuesday, the number of patients within the Ramsey Lake Health Centre was simultaneously snowballing.

“At this moment we’re at 116 per cent occupancy,” said David McNeil, vice-president of patient services at Health Sciences North. “We’ve surged up into areas of the hospital where we’ve had to put people in lounges and in hallways.”

While McNeil acknowledged the situation is far from ideal, he stressed the hospital is doing its best “to put the resources around staff to ensure patients are getting good, patient-centred care.”

It’s not the first time the hospital has had to quarter patients in overflow areas, but pressure does seem to be unusually high at the moment.

“We continue to raise the bar with what we consider to be normal operations,” said McNeil. “You wouldn’t have thought normal was 35 patients in hallways and lounges, like we’re experiencing today, but that’s now the new normal.”

The crunch didn’t begin this week. McNeil said overcrowding has been an issue “since the beginning of September, in a pretty dramatic way.”

But it’s become more pronounced of late, in part due to “a surge in respiratory-related illnesses within our community,” he said. “Last year we kind of got away without a big surge, but it generally happens sometime from the beginning of December to March, and it would seem that’s what we’re experiencing right now.”

Exacerbating the situation is the high number of frail, elderly patients who might not require a hospital stay but presently have nowhere else to go. About 100 of these so-called alternative-level-of-care patients are currently housed at the Ramsey Lake hospital, whereas last year at this time “it was about 72,” said McNeil. “So it’s a growing problem, and it’s a system problem.”

For Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, it’s a problem that requires an urgent response from the Wynne government.

“There definitely has been a crisis in the last few weeks across the province,” she said. “There’s no question that hospital occupancy rates are at levels that are extreme compared to any other jurisdiction or benchmarks in academic literature.”

Sudbury is a “prime example of what we’re talking about,” she said, as the Ramsey Lake hospital “is running consistently at levels of overcrowding that are unsafe for patients and staff.”

Mehra stressed she doesn’t blame Health Sciences North administration or staff, as they can only work with the resources at their disposal, while facing continual pressure to run a leaner operation.

“It’s not even in the local hospital’s power to address the situation,” she said. “It’s the provincial government that has to commit resources and see there’s a problem, which they don’t. It’s just an endless race to be quote-unquote the most efficient, by pushing patients out fast and reducing lengths of stay.”

A chronic shortage of hospital beds has become “too accepted,” she said, and the problem only seems to grow.

“What’s happened over Christmas, and is ongoing, is an emergency department overload crisis across the province,” she said. “Yet the bed cuts and staffing cuts have continued, so every year actually the situation does get worse.”

A release issued Tuesday by the NDP suggests Ontarians should brace for more lineups at emerg and gurneys clogging hallways.

The opposition party points to a recent report from the Financial Accountability Office warning $400 million will have to be trimmed from health-care spending this year for the Liberals to meet their targets, with a further $2.4 billion cut over the next two years.

“Health care in Ontario is at a tipping point,” said finance critic and Timiskaming-Cochrane MPP John Vanthof in the release. “Hospitals and emergency rooms are overcrowded, people are waiting far too long for surgeries, and hospitals are being forced to treat people in hallways that were never designed for patient care.”

McNeil said HSN has a “surge protocol” it implements whenever its ER is “overwhelmed, like it is today. We’re implementing as many measures as we can.”

Patients placed in spillover areas of the hospital are far from forgotten, however. If anything, said McNeil, the problem is more that they are more conspicuous than they would like, lacking the privacy afforded by a room.

It’s a challenge for caregivers, too. “It’s very stressful for staff,” he said. “Nursing staff and physicians want to provide care to patients in appropriate settings, and the settings they are sometimes having to provide care in aren’t the most ideal settings.”

The problem is “not unique to Health Sciences North,” he said, although larger, academic centres like HSN do tend to experience a more acute version of overcrowding, since they accept patients from far and wide.

“On a day-to-day basis, we don’t only take patients from Sudbury,” said McNeil. “We take patients from all across northeastern Ontario, so if somebody has a cardiac problem and they’re sitting in a hospital in another northeastern Ontario community, it’s like they’re sitting in our emergency department.”

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