MPP Ottawa Centre
A hospital crisis hits close to home
By Joel Harden
I don’t talk about my family very much, but a recent event has given me an exception to that rule.
Andrea, my sister, had a 37-hour ordeal at a local hospital emergency room (ER), and her experience offers a cautionary tale about where we’re at with health care in Ontario. She said I could share her story to push for urgent change.
On the advice of her family doctor, Andrea was admitted to the ER with acute appendicitis, and scheduled for an urgent surgery. After an agonizing wait, the surgery finally happened.
But as Andrea waited, she saw many things.
She saw exhausted staff run off their feet with skeleton crews. She heard two Code Whites called (that’s the signal for a serious physical assault on hospital personnel). She saw rooms that were dirty with accumulated mess.
She saw Ottawa Police Service members waiting for hours as people they helped admit to the ER with serious mental health crises were treated for their needs.
She slept overnight in a reclining chair, in significant pain, in a hallway. Her surgery kept getting bumped when major trauma incidents came through the ER.
Of course, getting bumped through the process of ER triage is a normal practice. But waiting for 37 hours for an urgent surgery is alarming, and it’s not normal to have the current levels of violence, staff fatigue and acute conditions Andrea saw in our hospitals.
That sentiment is shared by health care staff. They’ve been warning us, but political decision makers are not responding to their concerns. Instead, Ontario’s ERs have been temporarily closed due to staff shortages – 867 times in 2023 alone (the highest rate ever).
The Ontario Coalition of Hospital Unions polled their members and found almost half of them in the Ottawa area dread going to work. Nursing leaders are saying the same thing.
Family doctors in Ottawa have threatened job action given underfunding, and massive demand from people without access to primary care (a nurse practitioner or family doctor). Some 2.2 million Ontarians are in this situation, and the consequences for hospitals are serious.
Ontario’s Auditor General notes that 23 per cent of ER admissions were low acuity in 2022-23, and could be resolved by access to primary care. But there is no serious provincial strategy for this; a paltry $30 million (or 2 bucks per Ontarian) was allocated last year for “primary care innovation,” and even these meager funds went unspent.
The government claims it’s increased health care spending and is working on a “health human resources strategy.” It has opened up opportunities that let for-profit, investor-driven clinics operate in public hospitals, or to be paid from OHIP funds.
But this strategy has failed.
Hospitals are losing staff (notably nurses), and often hiring them back from employment agencies that charge double or triple normal compensation. That drives up costs, leading some hospitals to seek exemptions to run deficits, or take out bank loans. The experiment with for-profit health care has not reduced surgical wait times.
We are headed in the wrong direction on health care, and that has to change.
Ontario’s Official Opposition has called for the immediate resumption of the House. We have health care solutions to offer the government − we are hopeful they will listen.