WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government is closing three of Winnipeg's six hospital emergency departments and refocusing two of them on non-life-threatening care.
Critics said the changes will leave patients in many areas of the city facing longer wait times, but health officials said it will actually shorten waits by diverting less-urgent matters away from the remaining emergency rooms.
"We know that about 45 per cent of people who currently attend at our hospital emergency departments come to us with fairly low-level types of illnesses and injuries," Lori Lamont, chief nursing officer with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, said Friday.
"Those people's needs will be better met in an urgent-care environment."
The decision comes in the wake of a consultant's report ordered under the previous NDP government. The report said Winnipeg has more emergency rooms than some larger cities such as Calgary, adding it was inefficient and made for unnecessarily long wait times.
The Canadian Institute for Health Information, a non-profit national agency that tracks health statistics, said in a report last year that Winnipeg emergency rooms had some of the longest wait times in the country.
The changes will see emergency rooms at Seven Oaks Hospital and Victoria Hospital converted to urgent care centres. The emergency room at Concordia Hospital will be closed and the hospital will focus more on transitional care for the elderly and physical rehabilitation.
The three remaining emergency-room hospitals — Health Sciences Centre, St. Boniface Hospital and Grace Hospital — will be given more surgical beds and expanded mental health services.
The idea, according to the regional health authority, is to concentrate emergency departments at facilities equipped with specialists.
Dr. Alecs Chochinov, head of the health authority's emergency program, said there are very few centres staffed by specialists who can perform procedures such as heart surgery.
"So what's happening now is people with major medical emergencies are going to their local emergency departments and enduring delays (and transfers) because of the absence of those folks and the procedures."
The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union, which represents thousands of health-care workers, is not convinced the changes would improve wait times.
"I've offered this government many, many times since last April to meet with us and talk to our members and find out (about improvements)," said union president Michelle Gawronsky.
"Instead, they chose to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants that have never used our system. They have never worked in our system."
The government said any job losses would be minimal and, while some jobs may be relocated, workers should be able to retain their positions or find new ones.
But the government and the health authority were unable to provide specifics such as how much the changes will cost, the number of new beds being added to the remaining emergency rooms, and how much will be saved in the long run once the changes are completed in the next few years.
The Opposition New Democrats said there were few details on how the remaining emergency rooms might handle more patients.
"This plan is a disaster for patients and it breaks the premier's campaign promise to protect front line health-care services," NDP health critic Matt Wiebe said.
Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen called the reform the biggest in a generation, and one that will improve a costly, inefficient system.
"We couldn't just continue to pour money into a system that wasn't working," he said. "Doing nothing was not an option."
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press