Long wait times for 811 leave some callers wondering if they should go to the ER instead

·2 min read
Mike Beaton says he didn't want to take up a spot at the ER if he didn't have to, but he also didn't want to wait five hours to get a call back from 811. (Steve Bruce/CBC - image credit)
Mike Beaton says he didn't want to take up a spot at the ER if he didn't have to, but he also didn't want to wait five hours to get a call back from 811. (Steve Bruce/CBC - image credit)

Some Islanders say they're frustrated with P.E.I.s telehealth service, 811, after waiting hours to get a call back from a nurse.

Mike Beaton tried using the service on Saturday, when his daughter was having health issues. He didn't know whether her issues warranted a trip to the emergency department or could be dealt with at home, with help from a nurse on the phone.

But when he called, he was told he'd have to wait five hours to speak to a nurse, so he headed to the hospital instead.

"My understanding of the whole 811 system was that it was supposed to be able to guide us to tell us where to go," he said. "I didn't want to go to the hospital and take up a seat there if I didn't need to.  But it just wasn't able to help me."

Kayla MacDonald wanted to speak with a nurse about her daughter's rash, and was told she would have a 12-hour wait.

"We don't really know what to do at that point," she said. "Do I wait here for 12 hours or do I go sit at emerg for possibly longer than that? It's scary."

Steve Bruce/CBC
Steve Bruce/CBC

P.E.I.'s health department has a contract with a Nova Scotia company, Emergency Medical Care, to provide the 811 service.

Under that contract, which is up for renewal in 2024, nurses are required to get back to callers within 30 minutes, 90 per cent of the time. But in a pandemic, that requirement goes away. There are no wait time expectations.

Increase in calls during pandemic

According to the service provider, 811 call volumes have nearly tripled through the pandemic. They were particularly high in January, in the early days of the Omicron wave.

And according to P.E.I.'s Health Department, the service has some staffing challenges.

"They're doing the best they can to address the high volumes they've had, really since the beginning of the pandemic," said Matthew Leyenaar, P.E.I.'s director of emergency health services.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Wendy Boutilier, manager of operations and clinical services with 811 Telecare, said staffing levels at the service have been at the complement for the most part in recent months, but during the pandemic there have been times when call volumes have been very high.

But that's of little consolation to people like MacDonald and Beaton.

"It kind of makes me, honestly, not even really want to call them again," said MacDonald.

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