Hospital overflow rooms being used to mask ER overcrowding, union says

Staff shortage forces Gatineau Hospital to cut surgeries

Quebec's largest nurses' union is accusing hospital administrators of moving patients out of the emergency room and into overflow rooms in a bid to satisfy a recently issued government directive on ER overcrowding.

Last week, Health Minister Gaétan Barrette gave administrators an ultimatum to fix overcrowding within a week, or face consequences.

The treasurer of the Fédération Interprofessionnelle de la Santé du Québec (FIQ), which represents most of the province's nurses, says more hospitals are now creating large overflow rooms to move patients out of the ER.

Roberto Bomba says those patients are not counted in emergency room statistics.

"It's a certain cosmetic fix where whether it's the government, the Ministry of Health or the hospitals, they tend to look better than the actual situation is," he said.

Bomba said overflow rooms are often understaffed and not equipped to deal with patients.

Overflow rooms useful, but overused: Barrette

Pascale Lamy, spokesperson for the regional health authority in the Lanaudière region, said at high traffic times it is possible that patients will be moved into overflow beds, but the practice has nothing to do with government directives and the patients always receive appropriate care.

Barrette said many hospitals have reduced overcrowding since the ultimatum was issued last week, but at least four are still "significantly problematic."

Those four hospitals are:

- Maisonneuve-Rosemont.

- Charles-Lemoyne.

- Jewish General Hospital.

- Cité-de-la-Santé.

He credited the improvement to fact that the hospitals have been managing their beds better — not to the use of overflow rooms.

Barrette said there are situations when the rooms are useful. 

"It is much better for a patient to be in a room on a ward … as compared to an ER hallway, where you're on a stretcher, lying down for 24, sometimes 48 hours," he said, adding they should only be used in exceptional situations.

Late last year, Quebec's Liberal government announced a $100-million investment toward freeing up spaces in hospitals.

Those spaces were supposed to be reserved for ER patients, but he said the apparent rise in the use of overflow rooms makes it look like those beds are being used for other patients.

Long-term beds the answer?

Bomba said he believes the situation could be improved if the province opened more long-term care beds, an idea echoed by Paul Brunet, spokesperson for the Council for the Protection of Patients.

"If you don't have, for example, long-term facility beds, you're going to have a problem with at least 25 per cent of the patients already in the hospital that could be treated elsewhere," Brunet said.

The nurses' federation says the province should consider opening up clinics staffed by nurses, a proposal they have been making for years.

The nurses would be able to treat minor problems and help triage patients, a cheaper solution that they say would help ease the burden on emergency room staff.