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Health care in Ontario: What needs to be done now for the province to fix crumbling system

Whether it’s the news or first-hand anecdotes amongst family and friends, it’s hard to avoid stories around the current state of Ontario’s health care

Several Ontario municipalities say their paramedic services are under immense pressure, with worrying stretches of times during which no ambulances are available to respond to calls – but the province doesn't track the problem. Ambulances are seen at a hospital in Toronto on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Several Ontario municipalities say their paramedic services are under immense pressure, with worrying stretches of times during which no ambulances are available to respond to calls – but the province doesn't track the problem. Ambulances are seen at a hospital in Toronto on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Thing were bad then, and they’re worse now.

A Nanos survey of CUPE hospital workers in Ontario found that 43 per cent are considering quitting their jobs — which would devastate an already crumbling health-care infrastructure in the province that's left workers and patients wanting improvements now.

Whether it’s the daily news, social media or first-hand anecdotes amongst family and friends, it’s hard to avoid stories around the current state of Ontario’s health care that paint a picture of a system that’s falling apart.

Erin Ariss, president of the Ontario Nurses’ association, echoes the sentiments.

While she left her position as an ER nurse in Kitchener, Ontario in 2021, after working there for 21 years, she says the situation keeps getting more dire.

“Thing were bad then, and they’re worse now,” she tells Yahoo News Canada.  


Patients waiting 12 hours at some Ontario ERs

Across the province, health care workers are facing continued obstacles that vary from impatient and sometimes violent patients, to unmanageable workloads to literally crumbling workplaces.  

“At one hospital, (nurses were told) to bring boots and a flashlight because of a pipe leaking in their ward” Ariss says. “Yet they reported to work anyway.”

Nurses are also expected to increase their workload. In the ICU, the normal nurse to patient ratio is 1:1, though Ariss says it’s now increased to 2:1 or even 3:1.

“It’s not in the best interest of the nurse, and it certainly leads to burnout,” she says. “And it’s certainly not in the best interest of the patient.”

A 2022 report by Oracle Research on behalf of CUPE found that 63 per cent of Ontario hospital workers had experienced physical violence.

Increased wait times in the ER are also becoming more commonplace.

A check by Yahoo Canada on Jan. 8 of various ER wait time websites throughout the province showed a wide range of wait times — from 5 hours and 48 minutes for Toronto General Hospital, to 11 hours at London’s Victoria Hospital, to 12 hours and 45 minutes at Ottawa’s Montfort Hospital.

Ariss says that busy ERs are still impacting patient care.

“When ERs are full of admitted patients, these ER department patients remain in waiting rooms or chairs or hallways,” she says. “It’s gone through the roof."

Some ERs across Ontario had to close with little to no notice, for evening, overnights, weekend or even weeks and months at a time, in 2023, according to a December 2023 report by the Ontario Health Coalition. It found that "there [had] been 1,199 closures of vital hospital services this year up until November 24 ... Consequently, 31,055 hours of care (equivalent to 3.44 years) have been lost to local communities."

The day after Christmas, Canadian actor and director Sarah Polley took to Instagram to post a photo of a screen in a waiting room at Toronto’s SickKids hospital. It showed a wait time of 13 hours and 22 minutes.

“Still here. 12 hours in. Stocking stuffers are coming in handy,” she wrote in the caption.


Family doctors in Ontario: Could they help fill the gap?

The Ontario College of Physicians found, in September 2022, nearly 2.3 million Ontarians didn’t have a family doctor – up from 1.8 million in March 2020. They predict that number will go up to more than 4 million by 2026.

One big reason Ontarians have to face long wait times in ER could be as a result of not having a family doctor.

Paul Sutton, who’s based in Toronto and works in the health industry, recently had to navigate the difficult task of finding a general practitioner after his doctor moved away. He felt grateful to have had a doctor within walking distance of his house who had a welcoming and respectful approach to his LBGTQ+ patients. But the doctor who was taking over the practice didn’t measure up.

“This physician wasn’t as well versed to LGBTQ health issues,” he says. “He suggested to my partner that he should be using condoms during oral sex, like it was the 1980s.”

It was also increasingly difficult to book appointments with the new doctor, with same-day appointments being scheduled for weeks later, or getting referred to after-hours clinics for critical issues. Sutton soon confirmed that the new doctor was only taking on the former doctor’s patients two days a week, while continuing to maintain his prior clinic. That’s when Sutton decided to look for a new doctor.

After some time, he managed to find a doctor who was taking new patients on recommendation, which Sutton credits to working a job adjacent to healthcare.

“I’m really worried about what people who aren’t health-system literate and don’t know the ins and outs, are doing,” he says.

He suggested to my partner that he should be using condoms during oral sex, like it was the 1980s.

For Caroline, a Toronto-based mother who didn’t want to use her real name, finding a pediatrician for her infant son became an all-consuming and stressful task. Almost all the doctors recommended to her told her they weren’t taking new patients, and the ones that were taking new patients informed her they couldn’t take her son because he wasn’t a newborn.

“I was worried it was like daycare where people literally sign their hypothetical kid up before they’re even pregnant,” she says.

While she’s managed to find a doctor for her son, Caroline isn’t thrilled with his bed-side manner. On a recent visit, she didn’t feel like the doctor was taking her son’s ailment seriously.

“I sort of want a second opinion but I don’t know how to do that,” she says.


What's next: How do you solve a problem like Ontario health care?

So what needs to be done in order for things to change?

A joint 2023 report by Unity Health Toronto, University of Toronto and MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions looked at ways various healthcare systems across the country could improve. Amongst its recommendations for Ontario, it highlighted things like expansion of OHIP to cover services like mental health, vision, dental, and pharmacare, and investing more money into primary care specifically. The organization identified "inequities in access to and quality of care" as a problem it wants solved.

Ariss agrees that more funding needs to be available in order for there to be more incentive for healthcare workers in the province, where she says there’s currently a shortfall of around 24,000 nurses.

“We need to see something like the Ford government did for policing students, where nursing students have their tuition paid for,” she says. "We also need to see wages increase to the point where nurses want to stay in Ontario.”

We also need to see wages increase to the point where nurses want to stay in Ontario.

The Ontario Health Coalition says that for this year and next, budget increases for health funding in the province don't match current or projected inflation.

In a briefing on Premier Doug Ford's fall economic statement, it found that the province's health care sector is being undercut by billions compared to what's been assigned for the coming years.

For the first quarter of this fiscal year, the Ford government is projected to spend $1.2 billion less than planned.

It's a trend that dates back a few years now: Between 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, the provincial government spent $1.0 billion and $1.8 billion less than it planned on health care, respectively.

Statistics Canada found that health-care inflation was 5.6 per cent for 2022-2023. The budgeted increase for healthcare in Ontario for the following year was just 3.2 per cent, according to the Ontario Health Coalition.