Dozens of emergency doctors from two more hospitals in B.C.’s Lower Mainland have joined a chorus of emergency room physicians speaking out about the dire situation inside their hospital departments, pushing the total number of staff who’ve spoken out in the last two weeks alone to more than 100.
A group of physicians from Royal Columbian Hospital and Eagle Ridge Hospital wrote a joint letter saying they don’t see an end to ongoing staffing shortages leaving vulnerable patients waiting for days without adequate, “dignified” care.
“The standard of what we accept as being a ‘bad day’ continues to get worse,” one physician said in an interview with CBC News.
“Oftentimes before we even get into the emergency department, we see a lineup of ambulances waiting to offload patients. On our way to our office, we see hallways lined with stretchers — patients who have clearly been there for hours waiting to be seen,” they continued.
“Sometimes we hear people crying out in pain and discomfort, and that’s before we’ve even started our shift.”
The doctors — whose hospitals are in New Westminster and Port Moody, respectively — form Fraser Health’s largest emergency team. CBC News has agreed to withhold their identities because they’re concerned about repercussions from their employer.
Their page-long letter follows a similar one from Surrey Memorial Hospital (SMH) physicians who claimed health officials have refused to publicly admit the scale of an ER staffing crisis that has patients waiting — and sometimes dying — in their hallways.
All 3 hospitals need more house doctors, physicians say
Staff from all three hospitals said it’s the same straw breaking the camel’s back: a lack of hospitalists, or house doctors, to care for patients beyond the emergency room.
ER doctors are only meant to diagnose and stabilize patients so they can be admitted to the appropriate ward for fulsome treatment, they explained. Without enough hospitalists admitting patients to that next ward, patients get stuck in the ER.
Emergency physicians end up caring for those lingering patients, all while new ones keep flowing in the door. It all leads to what doctors described as a dangerous log jam.
“This is really a patient safety issue that the health authority and our elected government is failing to recognize the severity and critical nature of — and failing to react with the urgency that’s required,” said one doctor, adding that they routinely treat patients in hallways.
“We’re concerned there’s a real chance of patient harm.”
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Most of newly expanded ER going unused
At Eagle Ridge Hospital in Port Moody, the staffing problems go beyond hospitalists.
Two doctors who spoke with CBC News said two-thirds of a newly expanded hospital ward sit empty for extended periods of time because the hospital doesn’t have enough nurses to staff the space properly.
The intermittent closures leave overwhelmed doctors walking past an unusable new ward, lights off and beds empty, while they face a waiting room packed with patients.
“Effectively those beds don’t exist … It is incredibly frustrating,” the physician said.
The new ward, approximately three times larger than the original, was completed less than a year ago and most recently closed this past weekend.
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CBC News has contacted Fraser Health for comment on the letter from RCH and Eagle Ridge.
Responding to concerns from the team in Surrey on Wednesday, the health authority acknowledged “longer-than-normal wait times” for patients and said recruitment staff are focusing on hospitalists, internal medicine physicians and nurse practitioners.
“We know long waits can be challenging for patients and their families, and we thank them for their continued patience and kindness during visits to our Emergency Departments,” an email read.
In response to the SMH letter this month, Health Minister Adrian Dix acknowledged workers’ “frustration” and said the province was “actively” working to hire more hospitalists.
The ministry has previously promised more spaces in medical school classes, but doctors who spoke in an interview said those fresh physicians won’t hit the ground for a decade.
“Our feeling is really that the government needs to find ways to attract and retain skilled and experienced emerged nurses [and hospitalists], because what’s happening right now is just not cutting it,” they said.