Hospital emergency departments in Ontario are experiencing record-high wait times and temporary closures ahead of the Thanksgiving weekend, seven weeks after the province announced a plan to address increasing health care staffing challenges.
McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton and Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario both warned of unprecedently long wait times this week. The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto said on social media that it was experiencing “extremely high patient volumes” and higher-than-normal wait times.
The South Bruce Grey Health Centre in the rural community of Chesley announced Thursday that its emergency department will be closed for eight weeks because of what it called a “critical shortage of nurses.” An urgent care centre in Port Colborne will close overnight on Saturday and reopen Sunday morning owing to a lack of physicians.
According to August data published on Friday by Ontario Health, the average amount of time patients in the province needed to wait before they were admitted to hospital beds was 20.7 hours, which matches the record set the previous month. The average wait to be assessed by a doctor and the average length of hospital visits by non-admitted patients dipped slightly from July.
Premier Doug Ford’s government introduced a plan in mid-August intended to stabilize the health care system by hiring 6,000 more health care workers and freeing up 2,500 hospital beds.
When asked Friday what progress had been made in those areas since the plan was announced, the province’s Ministry of Health didn’t provide a direct answer. Hannah Jensen, press secretary to Health Minister Sylvia Jones, pointed to initiatives already under way, including a $90-million effort to improve wait times at 74 high-volume emergency rooms.
“Our plan will support the health care system to address the urgent pressures of today while preparing for a potential fall and winter surge so our province and economy can stay open,” Ms. Jensen said in a statement.
But critics say the recent challenges show that the plan isn’t delivering results quickly enough.
Ontario Council of Hospital Unions president Michael Hurley said the province needs to do more to recruit new medical staff. He estimated that there is a need for 25,000 additional nurses in hospitals.
Mr. Hurley called on the government to repeal Bill 124, which caps wage increases for nurses and other public-sector workers at one per cent annually for a three-year period. Scrapping the legislation, he said, would help the province retain existing nurses.
The provincial government attributed some of the summer’s staffing challenges to absences related to illness and vacations, but Mr. Hurley said the continued struggles show there is a larger problem that needs to be tackled.
“I don’t see any sense of urgency coming from the province,” he said. “There’s an underlying crisis, a huge number of unfilled vacancies and an exodus out the door.”
In early August, Ms. Jones directed the province’s regulatory colleges for nurses and doctors to report back in two weeks with a plan to accelerate the recruitment of internationally educated health care workers, who need Canadian credentials before they can practice here.
The College of Nurses of Ontario suggested regulatory changes that would allow international nurses to register temporarily, so they could work in the province while earning their permanent credentials. The college also called for measures to allow retired nurses to return to the work force more easily.
Bradley Hammond, a spokesperson for the college, said in a statement that these changes could accelerate the registration of more than 4,600 international nurses currently living in Ontario. There are also 5,300 retired nurses in Ontario who could re-enter the work force, he said. The proposals are currently before the government for approval. They are expected to be presented to Mr. Ford’s cabinet in the coming weeks.
Ontario Nurses’ Association president Cathryn Hoy said she doesn’t believe the college’s plan will work on its own. She said a mentorship program to support nurses without work experience in Canada would be needed for a smooth transition.
“Employers think that they’re going to be able to work right away and they’re not,” she said. “They need mentors to support them.”