SickKids says ER wait times up to 12 hours for some patients due to 'unseasonably high' volumes

A view of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in August after it issued an alert about staffing shortages in its critical care unit.  (Carlos Osorio/CBC - image credit)
A view of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in August after it issued an alert about staffing shortages in its critical care unit. (Carlos Osorio/CBC - image credit)

Some patients are waiting up to 12 hours to see a doctor in the emergency department at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children due to "unseasonably high" numbers of patients coming through the doors, the hospital said on Thursday.

The hospital, known as SickKids, said in a statement that it has had days this month where more than 300 patients have visited its emergency department in a 24-hour period. Typically in October, it expects to see about 220 to 230 patients over 24 hours in its emergency department.

"At SickKids, volumes in our Emergency Department (ED) remain unseasonably high and are increasing as we move into the viral illness season. We are seeing more non-COVID viral burden in the community," the hospital said in the statement.

SickKids said it continues to grapple with the same staffing shortages it had in September and early October. Now, however, there is more pressure on the hospital due to flu season, COVID-19 cases and a surge in illness from what is known as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Dr. Jason Fischer, head of paediatric emergency medicine at SickKids, said in an interview with CBC's Power and Politics earlier this week that patients are dealing with higher than average wait times, compared to previous years, at its emergency department.

According to the hospital, the average time to see a physician in the emergency department in person is three times longer compared to that of October 2019.

Submitted by SickKids
Submitted by SickKids

"A large viral burden in the community is getting a lot of kids sick with fever, cough and cold," Fischer said.

"Traditionally, these families would access care through family practice physicians, through pediatricians, local urgent cares and emergency departments. But they're just not able to access the timely care they've come to expect. And so they're turning to our emergency department," he said.

Fischer said SickKids proved during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic that it can respond quickly when the need arises. He said, however, the questions that need to be asked now are: Why are families struggling to access care? How can the hospital improve that access?

"We really need to understand the issues in order to make sure the resources are used at the right point. We're going to need to do more. We can't do that on the front-line. Everyone needs to work together as a system," he said.

The hospital has made changes already, he added.

'We're in a crisis right now'

SickKids is urging families, before they visit its emergency department, to contact their family doctor to see what options are available, visit AboutKidsHealth for resources, or use its Virtual Urgent Care program.

Doctors have said children's hospitals in Canada are seeing an increase in cases of RSV, which causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract. It can result in severe infection in some people, including babies under two and older adults with pre-existing conditions.

Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor at the University of Toronto's faculty of medicine, said the RSV and influenza season is likely going to get worse.

She said young patients are already being transferred outside the Greater Toronto Area when no beds are available in local hospitals.

"We need people like family doctors and pediatricians in their offices to start seeing kids in person again and start taking the load off of the hospitals," she said.

Banerji said she agrees that parents should be considering other options.

"If a child is coming in with a fever and a runny nose, they shouldn't be going to the emergency department. They should be going somewhere else," she said.

"Most of these things are self limiting. Try, if you can, to access ibuprofen, acetaminophen and fluids. This will go away on its own but we're in a crisis right now."