Some Calgarians met with 15-hour waits as ER bottlenecks grow

Estimated wait times at Alberta Children's Hospital hit about 15 hours overnight on Wednesday. (Alberta Children's Hospital - image credit)
Estimated wait times at Alberta Children's Hospital hit about 15 hours overnight on Wednesday. (Alberta Children's Hospital - image credit)

Emergency room wait times in Calgary are surging again with several hospitals posting estimated waits hovering around 15 hours overnight on Wednesday.

According to publicly available AHS data, tracked by CBC News and updated hourly, Alberta Children's Hospital peaked at 14.5 hours and South Health Campus topped out at 14.82 hours.

Waits were long at Calgary's other hospitals, too.

"It's absolutely not OK," said Cameron Westhead, second vice-president with the United Nurses of Alberta. "We are seeing longer wait times overall and we don't see relief in sight."

Average ER wait times at Calgary hospitals have been trending up over the last month.

Alberta Children's Hospital

Reducing those waits has been a key priority for the provincial government. And the messaging leading up to the election campaign has been that these efforts are working.

At the end of April, the Health Ministry said ER waits were dropping as a result of its Health Care Action Plan.

"Patients are getting care faster at emergency departments, and Alberta is strengthening its workforce with more front-line health care workers," the press release said.

A 90-day update earlier this year also cited improvements.

In a statement provided to CBC News on Thursday, AHS said wait times fluctuate depending on factors that include seasonal illnesses and staffing levels.

Provincially, it said, waits to see an ER doctor dropped by 17 per cent, from 7.1 hours in November to 5.9 hours in March.

But for Westhead, that messaging doesn't fit with what nurses are experiencing.

"It just doesn't reflect the reality on the front line," he said.

Better than last fall

Dr. Eddy Lang, a Calgary ER physician, said it's important to look at the situation from a big picture perspective.

"I think we're significantly improved over the last few months than where we were last fall," said Lang.

A trio of viruses overwhelmed hospitals in the fall, and wait times at Alberta Children's Hospital, for example, spiked to about 17 hours.

"Maybe we're giving back some of that gain. That's a possibility. And that would explain last month's increase over the month before. But I think if you look at the last four months in Calgary compared to the last five months of 2022, we're definitely in a better place."

South Health Campus

Lang said the Health Care Action Plan has made a difference.

Nursing staff levels have improved, he said, and there are fewer admitted patients stuck in the ER waiting for beds on the units.

There are, though, a lot of new nurses who may not be as efficient as more experienced staff, he added.

"The improvements are not perfect and do not occur at all times and in all places."

According to Lang, South Health Campus has had a 10 per cent increase in patient volumes in the last two weeks compared with the same time period in February and March.

Most of the bottleneck happens in the evenings when there are fewer staff on site. That means people with less serious concerns can wait for long periods to see a physician," he said.

AHS said the southeast Calgary hospital saw 147 to 199 ER visits a day during April, and that many patients showing up there have complex care needs. Injuries from outdoor activities are up, too.

Alberta Children's hospital is dealing with between 180 and 200 ER visits per day with many patients seeking care for viral illnesses and mental health issues.

According to AHS, capacity at both hospitals ranges from 93 to 102 per cent, which is similar to last year and pre-pandemic levels.

The health authority said it is taking a number of steps to address wait times, including moving more patients into continuing care.

"Approximately 1,250 new continuing care spaces have been added in the last fiscal year, and another 250 are expected to open before the end of June 2023," an AHS spokesperson said.

CBC
CBC

For his part, Westhead believes there are likely a number of reasons for the ongoing wait time problems, including the recent move to have EMS hand off patients in the ER within a target of 45 minutes.

"When that happens, if a patient is left by EMS, someone still has to care for them. So that takes away resources from other people who are waiting.

Lang, though, said it's not affecting wait times because nursing staff are dedicated to caring for those patients.

Rural ER closures, the family doctor shortage and staffing issues are also factors, according to Westhead.

"Nurses are burned out. They are wanting some time off so may not be picking up additional shifts like they used to," he said, noting some are switching from full-time to part-time jobs or leaving the front lines altogether.

"We're looking for a lifeline."

Foothills Medical Centre