'As bad as we’ve seen it in 25 years': AMA president sounds alarm as Alberta hospital wait times rise

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Emergency waiting room populations have ballooned across the province, and hospitals are way past capacity in Edmonton, according to the head of the Alberta Medical Association.

“It’s as bad as we’ve seen it in 25 years, that’s how bad it is right now,” president Dr. Paul Parks said Monday. “We’ve never had that many in the Edmonton zone. We are literally activating the AHS disaster plan … we’re trying to get patients to next available beds.”

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Last Monday, in the Edmonton zone, Parks said there were 202 admitted very-sick patients with no hospital beds to go to, so they were stuck in emergency.

“We’ve never had that many in the Edmonton zone,” Parks said.

After mitigation, that number shrunk to 166 without beds, but that’s still alarming, he said.

Overcapacity protocols have kicked in.

“We need to balance the loads from across the province right now so we can gain capacity,” he said.

Among the immediate load-balancing options — moving ICU patients from the North Zone to Calgary or the South Zone, Parks said. Then there are “first available beds for alternate level of care” for patients who are admitted to hospital and ready to go to continuing care or to long-term care but they just need a bed there.

“They may need to travel geographically away from their families,” he said.

Dr. Paul Parks
Dr. Paul Parks, president of the Alberta Medical Association. Photo by SUPPLIED/AMA

In a couple of instances, there were beds listed as empty and available, but they couldn’t staff them, Parks said.

“If we don’t have the work force and the human beings to staff it, they’re really no good to us,” he said. “It’s really important to understand the reasons they can’t go up on the floors. In some hospitals they’re at 130 to 150 per cent capacity. That means if they’re staffed for 100 patients, they have 150 patients. They just can’t take any more.”

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Canadians face historic wait times: Fraser Institute

This news comes in the wake of a new Fraser Institute study that shows Canadians now face the longest health-care wait times in the nation’s history, roughly 28 weeks.

The non-partisan Canadian public policy think-tank released results last Thursday from an annual study that examines the total wait time faced by patients. According to the study, the median wait time for patients in Canada has climbed to 27.7 weeks, the longest ever recorded. Alberta’s wait times are 33.5 weeks.

Among the provinces, only three provinces had longer wait times than Alberta — New Brunswick (52.6), P.E.I (55.2) and Nova Scotia (56.7).

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“COVID-19 and related hospital closures have exacerbated but are not the cause of Canada’s historic wait times challenges,” said Bacchus Barua, director of the Fraser Institute’s Centre for Health Policy Studies. “Previous results revealed that patients waited an estimated 20.9 weeks for medically necessary elective care in 2019 — long before the pandemic started.”

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The study examines the total wait time faced by patients across 12 medical specialties from referral by a general practitioner (i.e. family doctor) to consultation with a specialist, to when the patient ultimately receives treatment.

“Excessively long wait times remain a defining characteristic of Canada’s health-care system,” said Mackenzie Moir, Fraser Institute policy analyst and co-author of the report. “And they aren’t simply minor inconveniences, they can result in increased suffering for patients, lost productivity at work, a decreased quality of life, and in the worst cases, disability or death.”

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