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Number of deaths in NS emergency room reaches highest level in six years, doctors point to ‘bed blocking’

Number of deaths in NS emergency room reaches highest level in six years, doctors point to ‘bed blocking’
Number of deaths in NS emergency room reaches highest level in six years, doctors point to ‘bed blocking’

ST. JOHN’S, NL — Emergency room doctors in Atlantic Canada say “bed blocking” and patients presenting with advanced disease that was not previously detected or treated is leading to high death rates.

Emergency department deaths in 2023 reached a six-year high, with 666 deaths compared to 558 the year before, according to the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

Newfoundland and Labrador saw a slight decrease in emergency department deaths, from 326 in 2022, a five-year high, to 297 in 2023. However, last year’s figure is still higher than in the years before and during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Retired physician Robert Martel, who worked in emergency rooms in Nova Scotia for decades, says many emergency room beds are blocked because they are occupied by patients who cannot get into long-term care or who need community care.

He says patients also end up in the emergency room much sicker than necessary because they don’t have a regular doctor who could have discovered their illness earlier.

According to Dr. Stephen Major, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, there is ample evidence that patients are worse off if they remain in the ED long after seeking emergency care.

Major, a family physician in St. John’s who worked in emergency medicine before taking a break last year, says the concept of bed blocking also forces doctors to sacrifice care, which takes a toll on their emotional health.

“There were times when you had 30 inpatients, and you had maybe three to five beds that were free to let people flow through,” he said. “We see patients in a chair, in a corner, you put patients wherever you can see them, because they need care.”

Dr. Mike Howlett, president of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians and associate professor at Dalhousie University, says health officials in all provinces need to begin long-term strategic planning to relieve the pressure on emergency departments.

According to him, this planning should also involve doctors, health care providers, caregivers and others who provide community care, such as home care.

“What we really need is a decision by governments to make it a priority that these patients don’t stay in the (emergency department) for so long, because we know it kills people,” Howlett said. “By not addressing it, governments and planners are systematically aiding and abetting a level of service that virtually guarantees that people will do worse.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2024.

The Canadian Press