An unusually high numbers of people seeking medical care at Sarnia’s emergency department is putting pressure on staff and increasing wait times, says Paula Reaume-Zimmer, VP of Integrated Services at Bluewater Health.
“We’ve never seen this kind of volume,” she said. “We are holding our own but it’s a challenge.”
The last four months have seen a steady increase in ER visitors, rising from 140 to 150 patients a day to 172 to 200 daily.
“That’s a pretty big jump,” said Reaume-Zimmer. “Our Emerg staff are really feeling the weight of the demand and just getting over a very tiring two years of Covid.”
She added that, according to the most recent number, nine out of 10 ER visitors are admitted to hospital in less than 18 hours.
Ontario Health tracks wait times for all provincial hospitals. The most recent data from May showed it took an average of 1.6 hours to have an initial physician assessment at Bluewater Health’s ER. Local patients who were not admitted were there 2.8 hours to 3.3 hours, depending on severity of illness.
Those admitted waited an average of 9.3 hours from registration to getting a bed, according to Ontario Health.
Reaume-Zimmer disputes Ontario Health’s numbers. She said on average the time to admit an ER patient is 3.9 hours.
But she didn’t argue that these are difficult times for frontline emergency staff dealing with higher than usual volumes.
Patients are arriving at Emergency with more complex conditions, likely because they delayed medical care during the pandemic, she said.
Numerous hospitals in Ontario are reporting ER waits of 20 hours and more. Some ERs have closed for several days because of staff shortages.
But Bluewater Health’s ER continues to handle the pressure and is almost fully staffed, said Reaume-Zimmer.
“On a day-to-day basis, we’re working hard to staff Emergency. We’re occasionally down one or two nurses or other help, but we have our Emergency Department covered for the summer,” she said.
One reason the hospital has managed skyrocketing ER volumes is an initiative called NOW (No One Waits) that it launched prior to the pandemic, Reaume-Zimmer said.
“So we were already focusing on improving flow across Bluewater Health, and often our leadership refer to it as a saving grace that prepared us for the COVID response.”
NOW includes daily 8 a.m. huddles of hospital leadership to discuss the busiest “hot spots” are and how to improve patient flow. A shortage of inpatient beds means a backup in ER and longer waits.
Bluewater Health is averaging 85% to 90% capacity, so patient flow, length of stay and discharges are critical, Reaume-Zimmer explained.
She called the NOW initiative the “backbone to our ability to manage our demand right now.”
Bluewater Health’s Petrolia ER has an average wait time for an initial physician’s assessment of 2 hours, in nine out of 10 cases. The average time it takes to be admitted in Petrolia is 1.4 hours, according to numbers provided by Reaume-Zimmer.