Emergency patients diverted as Red Deer hospital continues to struggle

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre serves nearly half a million people in central Alberta. It regularly operates over 100 per cent capacity (Heather Marcoux/CBC - image credit)
The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre serves nearly half a million people in central Alberta. It regularly operates over 100 per cent capacity (Heather Marcoux/CBC - image credit)

The Red Deer Regional hospital, plagued by ongoing capacity problems, staffing shortages and high patient volumes, was so overwhelmed last weekend it was forced to temporarily divert emergency department patients.

The facility is the only referral centre for nearly half a million central Albertans.

"[It's] a critical, crisis situation where we don't have the staff to provide safe care. We don't have the space. It's not a good scene right now," said Susan Beatson, president of the Red Deer hospital chapter of the United Nurses of Alberta.

On Friday, 32 admitted patients were stuck in the ER waiting for beds on the wards, she said.

While emergency department treatment spaces can fluctuate, Beatson estimated there were roughly 46 spaces (including stretchers, chairs and recliners) open that day, leaving few for incoming patients.

"The hospital was full. The emergency department was full. And there was a critical incident the day prior."

According to Beatson, a patient became critically ill in the waiting room on Friday after waiting four hours to see a doctor.

"This is a situation that has been ongoing for months and months and months. So when there's a critical incident that happens … that finally kicks them into saying, 'we have to do something.'"

Data recorded on the Alberta Health Services' website shows estimated wait times peaked at 13.5 hours overnight. However, Beatson said nurses recorded actual wait times of up to 18 hours on Friday.

Red Deer Regional Hospital

2 patients diverted

AHS did not answer questions from CBC News about the critical incident.

The health authority did confirm patients with "higher care needs" were diverted from the emergency department from 1:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. Saturday.

"Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre … continues to be exceptionally busy with increased patient volumes in the emergency department, and patients presenting with high acuity needs. This is resulting in some long waits in the ED at times, especially for less-urgent patients," spokesperson James Wood said in an emailed statement.

According to Wood, two patients from the central zone were sent to hospitals in Calgary on Saturday.

"We continue to do all we can to ensure our patients receive the care they need, when they need it," he said.

"We recognize that such measures can be frustrating and stressful for patients and their families, and we regret any inconvenience caused."

Diversions on the rise, doctors say

"We have been very concerned about diversions at the hospital," said Dr. Kym Jim, an internal medicine specialist and spokesperson for the advocacy group, the Society for Hospital Expansion in central Alberta.

"We basically cannot meet the demands of the population of central Alberta as we should be able to."

Jennifer Lee/CBC News
Jennifer Lee/CBC News

According to Jim, while emergency department diversions are not that frequent — happening a handful of times a year recently — there are a growing number of diversions in other departments.

Over the last month, staffing shortages have prompted roughly a dozen occasions where cardiology and general internal medicine patients had to be diverted to Edmonton and Calgary, he said.

There have been a number of gastroenterology diversions as well, he added, noting critical cases such as gastrointestinal bleeds have been sent elsewhere.

"A diversion … was something that rarely if ever happened before a year to year and a half ago and have now become commonplace," he said.

"A citizen of central Alberta is not going to get care in as timely a fashion as they used to.… When there is a delay in care, inevitably worse outcomes will occur."

Last year, the provincial government promised  $1.8- billion in funding for a long-awaited hospital expansion in Red Deer.

But with few details and years of construction ahead, Jim and the advocacy group have been calling for a transition plan for the interim period.

"We need an immediate plan for what to do in Red Deer," Jim said. "We can't wait for this new hospital to be built to address the acute issues that exist in the hospital today."

So far, he said, they've received no response.

Meanwhile, AHS said it's taking a number of steps to manage patient demand, including discharging patients who can be supported at home and sending patients to smaller hospitals in the zone.