Patient dies while waiting for care in Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre emergency department

The Health Sciences Centre emergency department is routinely filled with patients waiting for beds in hospital units, which makes it difficult for nurses to watch everyone as closely as they want to, Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson says. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC - image credit)
The Health Sciences Centre emergency department is routinely filled with patients waiting for beds in hospital units, which makes it difficult for nurses to watch everyone as closely as they want to, Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson says. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC - image credit)

A patient died this week while waiting for treatment in the crowded emergency department waiting room at Manitoba's largest hospital, where nurses say they are so overwhelmed they simply can't keep an eye on everyone all the time.

"We are investigating a potential critical incident that occurred during a one-hour window on Feb. 27 in the [Health Sciences Centre] emergency department," a Shared Health spokesperson told CBC News in an email Wednesday.

"An initial review of the circumstances surrounding this event is underway."

Privacy legislation prevents the health agency from speaking to the specifics of the patient's case, the spokesperson said.

It's unsettling news but also not unexpected, Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said.

"I've been hearing from nurses in the ER for quite some time with regards to their fear that incidents like this would happen, just because of the working conditions and the lack of staff to monitor patients," she said.

"It is a shame and condolences to the family that this happened. It is such a shame that our health-care system has fallen into this disrepair."

The HSC emergency department is routinely filled with patients waiting for a bed in one of the hospital units, she said.

"So what happens is those patients come in, they're ill, they need to be admitted, and there's no place to put them. So they end up languishing in the emergency department, which then of course backlogs the waiting room," Jackson said.

"And then those nurses are not only caring for patients that need emergency care, but they're also caring for patients that should be admitted, that need changing, need to be fed, etc. So it's just a domino effect in that emergency department."

Nurses try to move the sickest patients closer, where they can keep an eye on them, and shuffle more stable patients to other areas, but it's not always possible, Jackson said.

"It's a shell game," she said.


Nurses are doing as much as they can, as fast as they can, to monitor and keep patients safe, but at times the HSC emergency is incredibly chaotic and there's just not enough staff, Jackson said. Some patients are sitting for 12-15 hours, she said.

"It's very difficult to be able to manage your admitted patients [lined up in hallways] as well as retriaging and monitoring 50-odd patients in the waiting room," she said.

The situation is the same at every hospital in Winnipeg, she said.

"You will not find an emergency department in this city that doesn't have patients in hallways at this point. It's just a reality of our health-care system right now. It's a reality of our nursing shortage."

During question period at the Manitoba Legislature on Wednesday, Premier Heather Stefanson offered condolences to the family of the patient who died. She later told reporters her government is working to address staffing challenges in health care.

Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon was asked about the death during a Wednesday news conference. She would not talk about it, citing privacy legislation even though no personal information was being requested.

She said she looks forward to receiving the results of an investigation into the incident and urged Manitobans to not be worried about going to emergency departments.

Randall McKenzie/CBC
Randall McKenzie/CBC

Gordon thanked nurses for their work "during a very difficult time in our province's history" and said the province is working make their jobs easier and add more health professionals to the system.

When pressed more on the issue, Gordon left the podium and ended the news conference.

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew, addressing the media after Gordon, criticized the health minister's conduct.

"We need accountability. We cannot have those running our health-care system running away from questions," he said.

"We don't yet know many of the details about what took place but we do know that we have an issue in our emergency rooms. Manitobans deserve to have confidence, when they go to an emergency room, that they are going to get the health care that they are seeking."

Randall McKenzie/CBC
Randall McKenzie/CBC

Kinew called for urgent support for nurses and other health-care professionals through investment in the system, and an expansion of primary care so people don't need to use emergency rooms because they can't find a family doctor.

Both he and Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the Progressive Conservative government's antagonistic relationship with health-care professionals has exacerbated the situation.

When people are overworked and feel disrespected, they are more inclined to leave the profession, leading to more shortfalls, Lamont said.

Randall McKenzie/CBC
Randall McKenzie/CBC

"They've had to work for years and years without any supports, they don't get breaks, they're forced to do mandatory overtime and when they become managers … [if they raise any concerns] they get fired because they're not part of the union anymore," Lamont said.

Lamont said the Progressive Conservative government's health-care focus has been on saving money rather than patient care or civility to those working in the system, which has led to emergency wards becoming holding rooms.

"The terrifying thing about being stuck in a corridor? There are no bells," Lamont said. "If there is no one else to call for help for you, you will get no help. That's a terrifying prospect.

"And the idea this is going to be solved with a happy budget announcement next week is not the case."