17/11/2010 11:30:00 AM
by Sameer Vasta
The case of an elderly woman dying in a hospital emergency room after waiting six hours to see a doctor is stirring up a debate about the efficacy of our much-lauded health care system, and rightfully so.
Last Tuesday, Therese de Repentigny, a 78-year-old Montreal woman, was taken to a hospital emergency room after complaining of pain. There, she was seen by a triage nurse and then told to wait.
So she waited. And as the hours passed, both de Repentigny and her daughter regularly asked when they would be able to see a doctor. The answer remained the same: wait.
Six hours later, as de Repentigny got up to use the bathroom (still not having seen a doctor), she collapsed to the floor. Only then did doctors arrive to treat her, and de Repentigny passed away shortly after that.
An elderly woman complaining of pain waited for six hours in a hospital emergency room without medical care before she died
— and an inquiry is underway to see if a lack of adequate care contributed to her death. This isn't the first time such an incident has been reported in Canadian hospitals: two years ago, a homeless man with a bladder infection spent 34 hours without medical care before dying in the ER waiting room
Canada's universal health care program is lauded around the world as an example of a state-funded and state-run health program that works, and works well. Stories like that of de Repentigny and other tales of hospital wait-time woes (external - login to view)
are slowly dismantling the illusion of a perfectly-run system.
If Canada is to continue to lead in universal health care and to set an example on how access-for-all health care can be done effectively and efficiently, hospital and ER wait times is an issue that must be fixed, and fixed immediately.
The most obvious solution to the wait-time conundrum is simple: hire more doctors. According to a recent OECD report (external - login to view)
, Canada has 2.2 physicians per 1000 people, lower than all G8 countries except for Japan. Hiring doctors, however, is more complicated than it seems; with tightening budgets and a lack of resources in certain parts of the country, adding more doctors to an ER's roster may not be feasible.
The less obvious solution may work best in the interim: if we can't boost supply, we should reduce demand. By investing in prevention, homecare, targeted clinics, online and telephone health services, and community-driven health care groups, the government can reduce the pressure put on emergency rooms — in essence, having them deal with critical emergencies rather than being catch-all places for all health care issues.
Steps in this direction are already underway. Now, we just need to educate the general public to learn more about the health services in their areas so that they can use those resources instead of simply turning to the local hospital ER.
These programs won't solve emergency room wait times, but should alleviate some of the struggles that hospitals are currently facing — and hopefully the reprieve will let our country's health care stay robust while we figure out ways to make sure it doesn't crack under pressure.