Long waits: thousands of patients leave ERs before seeing a doctor

Thousands of patients in Saskatchewan emergency rooms had their health put at risk last year by leaving before a doctor could get to them, due to unbearably long wait times.

In just four health regions, more than 18,000 patients registered with a triage nurse and were put on the list to see an ER physician, but never did.

In Saskatoon in the 2014-15 fiscal year, more than 6,643 patients registered at the ER but never saw a physician. That’s more than 550 every month. In Regina, that number was 5,690, or an average of 474 patients every month. At Prince Albert’s Victoria Hospital, 2,659 patients left without seeing a doctor last year – that’s 221 patients each and every month. At the Battlefords Union Hospital, 2,471 patients left before getting the chance to see a physician, with between 170 and 350 patients walking away from the ER every month, and smaller hospitals in the region reporting multiple patients leaving each month as well.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable for wait times to be so unbearably long that patients leave,” said NDP Leader Cam Broten. “These are people who show up at the ER needing help, in pain, and they're left sitting in waiting room chairs for hours – so far too many of them end up taking a risk and going home, perhaps even choosing to dangerously self-medicate. Tackling today’s unreasonable ER waits simply has to be a top priority.”

Brad Wall paid lip service to ER wait times in 2012 with a commitment to end ER waits by March 31, 2017. Despite repeating the promise many times, the Sask. Party has spent untold millions of dollars and put much of its focus into its ongoing John Black Lean project, and the government has made no progress on ER wait times. In the Health Ministry’s 2014-15 annual report, the Sask. Party quietly walked away from the Wall's commitment to eliminate ER waits by 2017.

“ER wait times is a top concern for Saskatchewan families, and I can’t understand why the Sask. Party isn’t prioritizing this,” Broten asked. “This government needs to get its priorities straight – cut the bloated management, cut the Lean debacle, cut the kaizen promotion offices and put the focus and the resources on the things that really matter in health care – including significantly reducing ER wait times.”

At Victoria hospital, the assessed severity level of patients that walk out without being seen by a doctor is tracked. According to the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region, on several occasions during the last year, three in 10 patients assessed as non-urgent left the ER without being seen by a physician, along with more than one in four semi-urgent care patients; more than one in 10 urgent patients; and about one in 20 emergency patients.