Londoners should pack a snack and their patience if they plan on visiting University or Victoria hospital’s emergency departments, officials with London Health Sciences Centre warn.

LHSC reports significant emergency department wait times for non-emergent matters

According to the organization, wait times at its emergency departments hit 18-plus hours on Thursday afternoon for non-emergent and non-urgent medical matters.

“Certainly our wait times are lengthier than we would choose for our emergency department patients,” Dr. Christine MacDonald, city-wide chief of LHSC’s Department of Emergency Medicine, said on Friday.

“For less acute problems, we’re seeing upwards of 12, 16, 18 hours, and certainly working to see those patients who are really, really sick far quicker … but our wait times are longer than we would choose.”

Wait times for those requiring emergent and urgent treatment were not immediately available.

Officials say those suffering a medical emergency should still contact 911 or go to a hospital emergency department, but those needing non-emergent care are asked to consider alternative health-care options, like family doctors or walk-in clinics, to avoid the lengthy waits.

“The wait times that we are experiencing now on a fairly regular basis, are something that LHSC has not encountered in the recent past,” an LHSC spokesperson said in a followup email.

Like other hospitals across Canada, LHSC has been contending with staffing shortages as medical professionals retire or quit the profession following two-plus years of the COVID-19 pandemic and frustration over frozen wages.

Last month, LHSC reported it had roughly 540 vacant nursing positions it needed to fill, including 442 for registered nurses and roughly 100 for registered practical nurses. The hospital employs nearly 15,000 people.

The province’s health minister, Sylvia Jones, directed the College of Nurses of Ontario last month to go forward with regulatory changes that could see thousands of internationally trained nurses enter the practice in Ontario more quickly.

Jones told the college to draft the amendments to regulations right away.

In addition to staffing challenges, patients are staying longer in hospital for treatment of more complex medical issues.

“The associated complications of illnesses has increased over the course of the pandemic. So a simple abdominal pain isn’t truly an abdominal pain, it’s more complicated and often requires a more detailed workup,” MacDonald said.

The hospital has also had challenges in discharging patients, MacDonald says, including alternate-level-of-care (ALC) patients who don’t require hospital-level care but who are still taking up a bed, often because they are waiting to be repatriated to a long-term care facility or to a hospital closer to their home.

“Our ability to discharge to an alternate location is sometimes challenging, as well. It’s certainly a complex issue and across the spectrum of health and wellness,” she said.

Late last month, the province’s controversial Bill 7 took effect, allowing hospitals to send discharged patients awaiting long-term care to nursing homes not of their choosing up to 70 kilometres away in southern Ontario.

Starting Nov. 20, hospitals can charge patients $400 per day if they refuse to move.

Hospitals across the province, including several children’s hospitals, have reported significant wait times amid rising respiratory illness rates, looser pandemic measures and ongoing worker shortages.

Patients at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children were warned this week to prepare for long emergency department wait times, as were patients last week at Ottawa’s CHEO.

At Hamilton’s McMaster Children’s Hospital, patients there were advised of wait times sometimes “in excess of 24 hours.”

Elsewhere, in one of the more extreme cases seen in the province, residents in the Bruce County community of Chesley learned this week that they would have to go without a local emergency department for two months starting Friday.

The closure of Chesley hospital’s emergency department until Dec. 2, announced Thursday by South Bruce Grey Health Centre (SBGHC), comes as a result of significant and ongoing staffing challenges at the hospital, officials said.

The hospital has also experienced shorter, temporary closures as a result of staff shortages, including days-long closures over the last several weeks.

In a news release, SBGHC officials said the organization has had to rely on agency nurses to fill vacant shifts, a solution it says is not preferred as they are costly and “not committed to our hospital sites.”

“In addition, our nurses do not feel valued when the agency nurses are making more money for doing the same work,” the release continues, adding that the agency would rather give that extra money to its own staff.

“The unfortunate reality is that without using agency nurses at this time, the organization would be looking at additional closures and reductions in service.”

While recruitment for nurses is ongoing, the organization notes the pool of available candidates across Ontario is limited.

A spokeswoman for the health minister said Friday that the province was planning to add up to 6,000 nurses and personal support workers in the next phase of its plan, with the goal of freeing hospital beds and expanding models of care to avoid unnecessary emergency department visits.

— with files from Allison Jones and Holly McKenzie-Sutter of The Canadian Press.

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