Ballooning emergency room wait times in Red Deer are a symptom of a hospital which is overwhelmed, understaffed and overcapacity, healthcare providers warn. And patients are feeling the impacts firsthand.
When Sheri Wall, who has Crohn's disease, arrived at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre's ER on Thursday night the posted wait time was six hours.
By 2 a.m. it was over 14 hours.
"I was actually really shocked at how busy they were," said Wall, who has spent a lot of time in hospitals recently due to complications from her illness.
"It was so packed in there. I don't know how they were doing it."
Wall was sent to the hospital by her doctor who told her she needed IV fluids after experiencing an intestinal blockage.
Seeing just how overwhelmed the ER was, she offered to be treated in her waiting room chair and was released around 5 a.m.
"I suggested to them, 'I just need fluids, I don't mind getting them in the ER instead of taking up a room.' So I got my treatment right in the waiting room."
That night, Wall witnessed patients giving up and leaving. Staff were starting assessments on other patients in the waiting room as well, she noted.
"They were getting blood work done in the emergency. They were sending people for testing just to be proactive before they go into the back because they were just waiting for beds. And you could tell how busy they were in the back," said Wall.
"They were just doing the best they could with the circumstances."
Care suffering, doctors say
The Red Deer hospital, which is slated for a $1.8-billion expansion, has struggled with bed and operating room shortages for years.
There have also been persistent calls by doctors for improved medical programs, including a cardiac catheterization lab which the provincial government has promised will be part of the new development.
But factors including growing staffing shortages, pandemic-driven delays in care and staff burnout are making the situation even worse, according to doctors.
WATCH | Alberta doctor calls on the province to set up a taskforce to address Red Deer hospital's troubles ahead of expansion:
"Patients are not getting care they deserve when they deserve it," said Dr. Kym Jim, a specialist working at the hospital and spokesperson for a group that's been advocating for the hospital expansion.
According to Jim the Red Deer ER is regularly backlogged with patients waiting for beds on wards.
"It's not at all what they should be receiving for care. You shouldn't be seeing people in a hallway when they are unwell and that [is] your first contact with them. It should not be that way."
In the past two years, he said, the hospital has lost over 20 specialists. And it's struggling to attract and retain staff.
Alberta Health Services acknowledged the Red Deer Hospital was "very busy" over the long weekend, which resulted in long wait-times in particular for less urgent patients.
"Summer long weekends are often very busy and pose extra challenges for staffing," spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in a statement emailed to CBC News.
"Some minor treatment spaces were not available on Sunday due to staff absences, which contributed to delays in treating less urgent patients. It is common for the number of available spaces to fluctuate with staff levels."
Williamson said patient volumes and wait times can vary widely, noting that by Monday at 2 p.m. the estimated wait time was about three and a half hours.
"In addition to increased volumes in emergency, capacity across [the Red Deer hospital] was also challenged over the weekend. When there are challenges with available bed spaces, the site uses a range of measures to help manage the demand on inpatient beds," he said.
"They include discharging patients as soon as possible with appropriate home supports, managing surgery patients waiting at home instead of in hospital as appropriate, and balancing admissions with other sites in the zone based on available capacity."
There are currently no surgery or emergency room diversions in place at the hospital.
Calls for bridging strategy
Meanwhile, Jim and the advocacy group, Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta, are calling for a task force to address the problems while they await the expansion.
Construction has yet to begin and isn't expected to be complete until 2030-2031.
"There is no end in sight for this particular problem," said Jim.
"There needs to be a task force to look into how to get us from today to there in terms of staffing, infrastructure [and] programs. That is on top of the work being done to actually build the hospital. We need a plan today to get us through the next few years to a new hospital."
According to Jim, while many patients will be unharmed by longer waits, doctors and nurses are extremely concerned about patient safety.
"Every now and then you'll have a situation where delays in care leads to a poorer outcome. It's a known fact in medicine. It's undeniable and unfortunately will occur. And it's the worst nightmare of every person that works at a hospital."