It will be five years next month since Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government announced sweeping changes to Winnipeg’s hospital system, including closing half of its emergency departments.
The result: emergency room wait times have skyrocketed.
It’s not just because of the pandemic: Lines were growing long before COVID-19 patients started crowding into hospitals. ER wait times began to increase shortly after the province implemented the first phase of its hospital consolidation plan in October 2017, when it closed the Misericordia Urgent Care Center and converted Victoria Hospital’s emergency room into an urgent care facility.
Bottlenecks in emergency departments continued to worsen after the implementation of the second phase of the consolidation plan in 2019, when the emergency departments of Seven Oaks General and Concordia hospitals were closed and turned into centers emergency care.
According to the most recent data released by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, the longest wait time for nine out of 10 patients in emergency rooms and urgent care centers jumped to 6.6 hours in January . That’s up from 4.4 hours for the same month in 2021. It was 3.9 hours in October 2017.
Median wait times (where half the wait times are longer, the other half are shorter) were 2.1 hours in January – a level at which they have hovered for most of the past three years . The median waiting time was 1h35 when the consolidation plan was launched.
The median waiting time was 1h35 when the consolidation plan was launched.
However, these numbers only tell part of the story. They include data from urgent care centers, where less acute patients are treated and wait times are shorter.
ER wait times at Winnipeg’s three acute care hospitals are much longer.
The longest at the Health Sciences Center for nine out of 10 patients was 9.5 hours in January. That’s up from 6.4 in January 2021 and nearly triple in October 2017 (3.6 hours).
Grace Hospital’s longest wait time in January for nine out of 10 patients was 6.9 hours, compared to five hours for the same month last year. It was 4.2 in October 2017.
St. Boniface Hospital’s longest wait for nine out of 10 patients was 7.6 hours in January, up from 4.2 a year earlier. It was 4.1 in October 2017.
Median wait times in January at the three acute care hospitals were well above last year’s levels and were double (or nearly double) what they were when the first phase of the consolidation plan.
Under the Tories’ reorganization plan, patients were supposed to have faster access to hospital care, in part through better bed management. However, the opposite happened.
Emergency department wait times are an important indicator, because that’s where the system backs up when hospital capacity isn’t enough to meet demand.
Most patients access hospitals through the emergency room. When they are sick or injured enough to be admitted to hospital and there are not enough medical or intensive care beds to accommodate them, they wait – sometimes for days – in emergency departments until a bed becomes available.
The more ER patients waiting for a hospital bed, the less time ER staff have to see new patients.
The Conservatives’ consolidation plan was supposed to solve this problem by giving patients faster access to services, such as diagnostic tests and referrals from specialist doctors, without transfers to other hospitals.
Consolidating acute care services to three sites would move patients through the system faster, reducing the number of patients saved in the emergency room, the government has promised.
It hasn’t worked, at least not so far.
Consolidating acute care services to three sites would move patients through the system faster, reducing the number of patients saved in the emergency room, the government has promised. It hasn’t worked, at least not so far.
The pandemic may have disrupted that to some extent. However, there have also been periods in the past two years when emergency rooms have seen fewer patients. COVID-19 has caused some people to avoid hospitals altogether, while the number of patients with injuries has declined, due to the restricted activity of public health measures.
Part of the reason the consolidation plan failed is that the province tried to implement it while cutting regional health authority budgets at a time when the WRHA needed more funding to cover transition costs and increase its capacity. The government tried to do it on the cheap, and it backfired.
The damage is not irreversible, but it will take several years of well-funded programming to fix it.
For the Conservatives, who will face voters in the October 2023 provincial election, the time to turn things around is running out.
Tom has covered Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.
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