The average time spent waiting to be seen at western Quebec emergency rooms grew to 21 hours this spring, the longest waits reported since 2015, according to the region's health authority.
"What we see on the ground is horrible. We have stretchers that are constantly full," Dr. Peter Bonneville, who has worked in the region's emergency rooms for more than 30 years, said in a French interview.
The health authority Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux de l'Outaouais (CISSSO) publishes wait times as of March 31 every year in its annual report.
It's measured from the time people are first assessed until they get a bed.
Last year's average wait was about 17.5 hours and the year before, nearly 20. The only time they've been higher is 21.5 hours in 2015, the first year of CISSSO's existence.
Staff and bed shortages blamed
Bonneville said he regularly has no examination cubicle available to see patients because people on stretchers are taking up all of those spaces.
His hospital in Gatineau regularly has only a third of the nursing staff it needs, he added.
"If you had a school with only a third of teachers, you would have to close it. … It is not livable," he said. "When a nurse is sick for a day or two, we are on the verge of collapse."
CISSSO's head of emergency services Dr. Marie-Hélène Folot said the region doesn't have enough hospital beds for patients in need.
"It happens more and more often that emergency care is paralyzed," she said in French.
The president of a local health-care union said the emergency room is often the gateway for people seeking care, so a glut in emergency rooms filters down into relentless pressure on other parts of hospitals.
"It's a hellish wheel, it exhausts the staff, the workers fall in battle [and quit]," said Karine D'Auteuil, president of the Syndicat des professionnelles en soins de l'Outaouais, in French.
None of the previous provincial health or Outaouais ministers agreed to an interview, citing the transition work being done after this week's election.
Papineau MNA Mathieu Lacombe, who was the minister responsible for the Outaouais before the election, pointed to statements made by pre-election health minister Christian Dubé last week.
Dubé said bonuses for nurses are helping with the staffing crisis and there will be new bonuses tailored for the Outaouais, along with local management of scheduling.
A new hospital in Gatineau is also in the works.