Ottawa's emergency rooms are slammed as storm, staff shortages hit hospitals hard

The Ottawa Hospital is not alone in facing extraordinary pressure on its emergency departments, something compounded by the weekend storm, ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks at every hospital in the city and worsening nurse shortages.

Elizabeth Payne 12 minute read May 27, 2022

Emergency department crowding reached critical levels in Ottawa this week, following a weekend storm that strained all of the city’s hospitals.

The Ottawa Hospital even considered asking the province to step in and order other hospitals to take patients quickly so it could cope with a situation its senior medical officer described as extraordinary.

“The hospital will be pressuring other facilities to accept all possible transfers rapidly and may go as far as to seek government ‘orders’ to speed this up if necessary,” wrote senior medical officer Dr. Kathleen Gartke this week in a memo obtained by the newspaper.

It is unclear whether that request was made to the province.

Gartke told department heads that the hospital was facing “extraordinary circumstances with regard to capacity.”

She said patients would have to be moved from the emergency department to unconventional spaces — including the hospital’s pre-admission unit and hallways — due to overcapacity.

Gartke added that any referrals or transfers to the hospital’s emergency department would have to be “approved by me personally” for 24 hours. The memo was sent Wednesday. On Thursday, although the situation was improving, the directive was extended another 12 hours.

“We would ask you to contact your physicians and convey the severity of the situation to them,” she wrote. “Please ask them to do whatever they can to assist us with the situation.”

Among other things, she asked whether any referrals or transfers to the hospital could be delayed 24 hours or longer.

In a statement, spokesperson Rebecca Abelson said the hospital “continues to face capacity challenges, including in its emergency departments.” She said the hospital has taken action to mitigate crowding by working with regional hospitals to support patient care and opening unconventional care spaces.

“The hospital will continue to adapt to these pressures and make changes as needed.”

She said health-care providers “are working hard to ensure that patients continue to receive high-quality and safe care.”

The Ottawa Hospital is not alone in facing extraordinary pressure on its emergency departments, something compounded by the weekend storm, ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks at every hospital in the city and worsening nurse shortages.

And hospitals — especially regional trauma centres such as The Ottawa Hospital — have limited control over patient admissions to their emergency departments.

Ottawa’s Queensway Carleton Hospital said Thursday it is also seeing a high volume of patients in its emergency department — 250-270 a day compared to an average of 220.

Among those are patients with complex medical needs who had no power after Saturday’s storm and had to go to the hospital because they required electricity to support “life-sustaining technology,” said hospital spokesperson Kelly Spence.

In addition, she said the hospital is seeing higher volume of ambulances, which have jumped from 45 to between 60 and 63 a day.

Queensway Carleton is also helping The Ottawa Hospital with its situation, she said.

“Our ED is actively working to provide care to our patients and working with The Ottawa Hospital to provide support to their ED while facing these unprecedented volumes and staffing shortages.”

CHEO has been reporting unusually high volumes in its emergency department for months.

Dr. Francis Dube, who works in emergency at Montfort, tweeted on Wednesday that “Ottawa emergency departments are on fire. I am walking in a midnight shift with 3x more patients to be seen than there are ED beds at our facility.”

Dube was responding to a tweet from Dr. Alan Drummond, a Perth emergency physician and co-chair of public affairs with the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians.

“I hate to say this. I really hate to say this but I think the summer of 2022 will be rural emergency nursing Armageddon in Ontario,” Drummond tweeted. “I am extremely worried that the predicted staffing difficulties will materialize with a bang leaving many ERs unable to staff at safe levels.”

Drummond said for many rural hospitals, summer is the busiest season, especially those with cottages nearby. But he said he has heard from people at hospitals — rural and urban — across the province and the country who shared his concerns.

He said staff are exhausted and fed up and are trying to cope with significant and growing staff shortages.

“We are potentially going to be in a dire situation based on shortages of nurses this summer.”

He said Ontario has largely been spared emergency department partial shutdowns that have been seen in other provinces due to staff shortages — but that is changing.

“Under Doug Ford’s watch we are starting to see closures and threatened closures in Ontario. I think that problem is going to become much more widespread.”

There is a global shortage of nurses, but Ontario nurses say legislation that has capped wage increases at one per cent at a time of unprecedented stress in nursing is worsening the situation in Ontario.

Links to more coverage of the weekend’s storm:

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