With the number of people visiting hospitals approaching pre-pandemic levels and staffing shortages continuing across the network, experts are warning it could be a difficult summer for Montreal emergency rooms.
Emergency room occupancy rates across the city are already alarmingly high, with several ERs operating at more than 150 per cent as of Tuesday and at least one union asking patients to avoid visits altogether.
For Dr. Judy Morris, president of the Quebec Association of Emergency Physicians, the situation is indicative of the larger problems still plaguing the network after two years of the pandemic.
“If there’s a problem in the system, it’s going to show in emergency rooms first, and we’re seeing it right now,” Morris said, adding that exhausted staff soon taking much-deserved time off could compound the problem.
“It’s going to be a challenging summer.”
In the Montreal area on Tuesday, more than a dozen local emergency rooms were overburdened.
According to the Index Santé website, the highest occupancy rates were seen at the Jewish General Hospital (160 per cent), the Centre hospitalier de l’université de Montréal (157 per cent), and the Royal Victoria Hospital (155 per cent).
The issue also extended to Laval, where its lone hospital emergency room was at 147 per cent, and the Montérégie area, where all but two of its eight ERs were over capacity.
In an interview, Morris said there are several factors contributing to the issue. Among them is hospitals being forced to close beds due to staff shortages, putting more pressure on ERs as they can’t transfer patients to other wards.
At-home services being reduced in certain regions also adds to the problem, Morris said, as people end up seeking care in emergency rooms when faced with no other alternatives.
“The services that need to be rendered in the health-care system cannot be rendered because of the lack of personnel,” Morris said.
“But patients are not going to magically get better. So, at some point, they’ll visit the ER.”
According to Quebec’s Ministry of Health and Social Services, there were some 59,600 employees absent from the health network as of last month, 10 per cent more than at the same time last year.
The ministry did not return a request for comment on Tuesday. In early June, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said that given vacation season was coming, it was expected the summer would be difficult across the network.
But Dubé said the province owes it to health-care workers to ensure they can take the time off they deserve.
Two weeks ago, the union representing health-care workers at the Lakeshore General Hospital, in Pointe-Claire, urged people not to visit its emergency room unless absolutely necessary.
Several work shifts were missing at least half the required nurses, the union said, making it no longer possible to provide “safe, quality care.”
As of Tuesday, the hospital’s emergency room had an occupancy rate of 139 per cent, with 27 people waiting on a stretcher for 24 hours, and 15 people for 48 hours.
In an interview, union spokesperson Kristina Hoare said the issue could be seen coming for a long time, and will continue to happen “unless concrete actions are taken by our employer and our government.”
Hoare said she understands the situation can be stressful for residents who rely on the hospital for emergency care.
But at the same time, she hopes people recognize the position health-care workers find themselves in two years into a pandemic.
“People are taking time off because they are burnt out, because they’re tired,” she said.
“For the past two years, we’ve been going into situations at work that are unheard of,” she added. “And the situation wasn’t dandy before the pandemic, either.”