After a three-hour wait at an urgent care clinic in Windsor, Ont., Christy Clarkson started to lose her patience.
“Just having to sit there and wait is so frustrating, like I wanted to cry because nobody wants to sit and wait in a room with a bunch of other sick people for hours upon hours,” she said.
“I just think it’s totally unnecessary and it’s actually disgusting how our medical system is.”
John Busser had a similar experience at the same clinic. In the last month, Busser said he’s gone to the clinic a few times and was either met with a two-hour wait or was turned away due to the overwhelming number of patients.
“It’s disheartening because you need the service and if you get turned away, you have to go travel everywhere around for it,” he said. “Sometimes you have to wait another day and hopefully you can get in.”
These experiences are a snapshot of the current state of Windsor’s healthcare system, which is being overrun by patients. The emergency room at Windsor Regional Hospital’s Metropolitan (Met) campus had the longest average wait time in the province in May.
I think at the beginning of the pandemic, the public was super appreciative of everything and now we have a lot of verbal abuse, [people are] very, very angry with the wait.– Nurse practitioner at Windsor walk-in clinic
According to new statistics released by Ontario Health, patients at Met have waited more than five hours on average to see a doctor.
Some frontline workers at walk-in clinics say these delays are causing people to seek care elsewhere in the community.
But Windsor Regional Hospital told CBC News that it’s seeing the reverse issue. It says people who do not have severe medical issues are coming to its emergency rooms, when they should go to a walk-in clinic or family doctor.
The hospital said it often hears from patients that they couldn’t get an appointment with their family doctor or if they could, it was weeks away, so they chose to get care elsewhere.
Clinic opens to lineups, closes hours early
One nurse practitioner at a Windsor walk-in clinic said that in recent months they’ve frequently opened their doors to lineups and have had to stop taking patients anywhere from one to three hours before their scheduled closing time.
CBC News has agreed to not use the nurse’s identity, because she is concerned that speaking publicly could put her job at risk.
“In the last two to three months, I would say the volume has at least doubled to tripled … at my clinic specifically,” she said.
“We have a line of usually 10 to 15 patients a day usually before we even open and a lot of those patients tell us how they waited overnight and left from the emergency room, which is really sad.”
In addition to the extra demand, the nurse said they’re seeing more patients with severe health issues that the clinic isn’t equipped to handle. In these cases, she said they prioritize those patients to determine the level of care that is needed, but she said this sets them back in their day.
She said that while patients might not want to wait at the emergency, health concerns such as a potential heart attack, difficulty breathing or chest pains likely can’t be handled at the average walk-in clinic.
People ‘angry with the wait’
The nurse, who has been in the field for a decade, said they’re fighting a broken system — one that brings out heightened emotions in the people they’re trying to help.
“It’s very scary. I think there’s a lot of anxiety around it as well,” she said.
“It’s very stressful at times and we have all noted how difficult the public is handling it as well … I think at the beginning of the pandemic, the public was super appreciative of everything and now we have a lot of verbal abuse, [people are] very, very angry with the wait.”
She said the clinic she works at is looking to extend its hours, but it’s challenging to find staff.
Dr. Ahmed Alamelhuda, a family physician in Windsor who occasionally takes walk-in patients, told CBC News that he’s also seeing an increased demand now compared to before the pandemic.
He said he’s hearing that some patients are having a hard time getting an appointment with their family doctor or are being met with restricted hours.
“My own patients [are] asking me, ‘Can you take on my family member? Can you take on my wife? Can you take on my child?'” he said.
He added that the wait time to get his patients’ specialist appointments has also significantly grown.
“I’m finding myself more and more referring to Chatham and referring to London just because of how bad wait times are and again that puts an added burden on our patients to travel and to make adjustments and accommodations to have to travel out of the city for care they should receive here, locally,” he said.
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Staff shortages, postponed health checkups fuel backlog
Alamelhuda and several other local medical experts who spoke to CBC News say there are multiple reasons for the increasing strains that the healthcare system is facing, including:
- Healthcare workers retiring during the pandemic.
- Workers are dealing with pandemic burnout.
- Patients showing up with more severe illnesses, often because they delayed seeking treatment during the pandemic waves.
- Summer vacation leading to staffing shortages.
- Reduced bed capacity in hospitals.
Alamelhuda said more funding can always help the sector, but he added that more medical school spots and ones for residency training should open up, and that international medical graduates should be allowed to work in the system.
In an emailed statement to CBC News, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Health said clinics are privately run and that if there are any problems with a walk-in clinic, or its staff, people should make a complaint to the office manager or administration.
It said the Ministry of Health does not have direct oversight of walk-in clinics.
As for the efforts being made by hospitals right now, the ministry said, “we commend [hospitals] for working tirelessly to keep operations running smoothly.”
The ministry also said the provincial government is investing to increase hospital capacity, including $1.5 billion in 2022 and 2023 to support the continued use of 3,100 acute and post-acute care beds that opened during the pandemic. The province is also set to pour $300 million in the next year toward the province’s Surgical Recovery Strategy that will make thousands of surgical and diagnostic imaging procedures available.
The statement also said that the government has added more than 10,000 health care workers since the start of the pandemic and is investing more money to recruit thousands more workers in the next five years.
But for the frontline workers who are being inundated by patients, the solutions can’t come soon enough.
“We are going as fast as we can and we’re not robots and we’re there because we want to help people, we don’t want you to sit and wait,” said the nurse practitioner.