Here's why you could be waiting longer for emergency care at West Lincoln Memorial Hospital

Residents are urged to get the flu shot and COVID booster to help ease the strain on emergency departments (ED) across the Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) hospital network.

HHS hospitals, including West Lincoln Memorial Hospital (WLMH), are under extreme pressure, creating longer wait times at emergency departments.

“On a daily basis, we have more patients waiting in our ED for admission than we have beds for in our hospital,” said Dr. Joan Bellaire, medical director at WLMH.

“This means that we have limited space in our ED to assess patients. At the same time, some patients are coming to the ED sicker and they need more care, which means that we can’t see other patients as quickly. All of this contributes to longer wait times and delays to care.”

Throughout September, WLMH had an average of 54 visits to the ED per day and the emergency wait times displayed on the HHS website show average wait times of 2.22 hours over the last 30 days, but those wait times depend on the sickness and priorities of patients.

The increased demand is a phenomenon seen across the country and caused by a number of issues, including staffing pressures, a higher number of patients and an increase in fall viruses.

“While we often see fall surges in flu activity, this year’s viral season is adding further strain to a health-care system already burdened by staffing and capacity pressures,” said Dr. Kuldeep Sidhu, chief of emergency medicine at HHS.

And that system is regularly over capacity, according to Sidhu, with 100 per cent of the provincially-funded beds full on a daily basis, meaning that HHS had to make another 60 to 80 unfunded beds available.

“The accepted standard for hospital capacity is 85 per cent, yet there are many days where our hospitals are at 110 per cent or more,” said Sidhu. “We simply have no more slack in the system.”

“Our EDs are often full beyond capacity, which is why some patients are cared for in unconventional spaces like hallways while they wait for a bed to open up,” said Sidhu. “But even in these less-than-ideal situations, our emergency teams are doing the best they can to meet the needs of their patients.”

The problem is compounded by the fact there are staffing pressures across the health system.

Part of that is due to an increased number of retirements due to the aging population. Retirements at HHS increased by almost 30 per cent over last year.

Although HHS is attempting to fill the staffing gaps, many roles are highly skilled, meaning there is competition across the health sector for a small pool of candidates.

Also, the hospital system can get gridlocked, meaning in-patient beds are full, so patients coming into the ED can’t get moved into a bed in a hospital unit.

HHS currently has a record number of patients who no longer need care in the hospital, but need to be moved to a community setting, such as a long-term care home, according to Wendy Stewart, communications advisor at HHS.

Sidhu stressed the importance of getting the latest flu and COVID shots and urged people with symptoms to stay home to avoid spreading the virus.

“It’s important to get a flu shot and to stay up-to-date with COVID vaccines and boosters,” said Sidhu. “If you have symptoms of flu or COVID you should also stay home, regardless of rapid test results, to reduce spread of viruses.”

But Sidhu said it was important for people needing emergency care to go to the ED, despite the wait times.

If a health concern can wait a day or more, people should visit their family doctor. If a condition is urgent but not life-threatening, people should visit an urgent care centre. People can also contact Health Connect Ontario to speak with a registered nurse around the clock via phone or web chat.

Chris Pickles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grimsby Lincoln News