Closing hospital beds for summer will lead to preventable deaths, Quebec doctors warn

·3 min read
About 60 doctors signed an open letter, obtained by Radio-Canada, saying the province’s emergency rooms are already under extreme pressure, which could lead to compromised care. (Dave St-Amant/CBC - image credit)
About 60 doctors signed an open letter, obtained by Radio-Canada, saying the province’s emergency rooms are already under extreme pressure, which could lead to compromised care. (Dave St-Amant/CBC - image credit)

Dozens of Quebec emergency room doctors are calling on the government to open more hospital beds this summer, instead of closing them to compensate for staff vacations.

About 60 doctors signed an open letter, obtained by Radio-Canada, saying the province's emergency rooms are already under extreme pressure, which could lead to compromised care.

The hospital beds are set to be temporarily closed to accommodate summer vacations for health-care workers.

But at the outset of the summer holiday season, those on the front lines in emergency rooms say they are already concerned about their ability to provide adequate services.

Dr. Marie-Maud Couture, the president of the Regroupement des chefs d'urgence du Québec (RCUQ), representing the province's chiefs of emergency, penned the letter, calling the situation "unheard of."

She wrote that the combination of the pandemic and the labour shortage have already pushed Quebec's front line to the limit.

"Several potentially preventable deaths have already been reported by chiefs of emergency in recent months, due to lack of access to stretchers and treatment," the letter said.

Backlogs and delays clogging ERs

According to the open letter, over 50 per cent of emergency room stretchers at any given time are occupied by patients waiting for a hospital bed. Often, they're in the ER for 24 to 48 hours, the letter reads.

That has a ripple effect. Ambulances are then held up waiting for a stretcher for their patient, leading to delays for paramedic care. Longer admission times are also associated with greater risk of mortality and complications, the letter claims.

"Our emergencies are forced to abandon their mission [in order] to become hospital overflow units," Couture wrote.

Meanwhile, she said more non-urgent cases are also showing up in ERs, because they are not able to access walk-in clinics or family doctors.

"The first line is unable to meet this growing demand, and several patients refuse guidance [to non-urgent care] because there is no guarantee of an appointment in the short term," she said.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

It's something Dr. Gilbert Boucher, an emergency room doctor at the Montreal Heart Institute, has seen first-hand.

"Unfortunately, for 10 weeks, the traffic has been extremely high every day, not just one or two days a week," he said. "Our teams are really suffering."

Boucher, who is also the president of the Association des spécialistes en médecine d'urgence du Québec, representing emergency room doctors, said the rest of the hospital system should be bearing some of the load.

"There's no reason that the ERs are operating at 150, 175 per cent capacity, while the hospital floors are at 100 per cent," he said.

Boucher said that if the rest of the hospital went up to 105 or 110 per cent capacity, it would free up stretchers occupied by patients just waiting for a hospital bed, giving the ERs more room to breathe and treat urgent cases.

Health workers deserve vacation, ministry says

Reached by CBC News, Quebec's Health Ministry said the government's plan to revamp the health-care system will address the pressures on emergency rooms.

"Like the chiefs of emergency, we want as many open hospitals beds as possible. And like all these professionals, we want non-emergency clients redirected to resources other than emergencies," a spokesperson said in a statement.

"[But] it's clear that health-care workers deserve a vacation this summer. We don't want to compromise on that, they deserve it."

More than a million patients in Quebec end up on a stretcher in an emergency room each year, according to data obtained by Radio-Canada.

"The mission of an emergency room is to welcome, assess, stabilize and orient patients," the doctors' letter read.

"Under no circumstances will its resources be used to make up for the lack of resources of other units."

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