Patients in some parts of the country are waiting more than 20 hours to receive emergency room care and the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is warning that unless major systemic changes are made, the problem will keep unfolding.

In a statement released Thursday, the CMA warned that Canadian emergency rooms are experiencing overflow due to a combination of staffing shortages, overcrowding and inadequate access to team-based primary care. This situation, it said, is leaving hospital emergency departments inadequately equipped to handle the surge of patients with influenza, COVID-19, or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) during this time of the year.

“As a physician practicing in Canada, I’m deeply concerned about the crisis we’re seeing in our emergency departments,” Kathleen Ross, president of the CMA told Global News. “Long wait times, increasing surges in respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages across the country are really making it hard for Canadians to access urgent care when they need it.”

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Click to play video: 'Kids’ emergency rooms are crunched in Canada, here’s what parents should know'

Kids’ emergency rooms are crunched in Canada, here’s what parents should know

Emphasizing that emergency rooms should not serve as replacements for walk-in clinics or family doctors, the CMA highlighted the pressing need for solutions due to Canada’s ongoing primary care crisis.

A CMA survey released in August found that one in five Canadians said they don’t have a family doctor. As a result, many of these people have had to resort to seeking care in emergency rooms, exacerbating the issue of overcrowding.

And now that it’s the heart of cold and flu season, Ross warns that crowded emergency rooms will only intensify.

“There has been a rise in the crisis in our emergency departments over the last several weeks, with our holiday season and the rise in incidents of respiratory illnesses,” she said. “We have to take into account that physicians and nurses working in these departments are also susceptible to illnesses, and we are facing increased staffing shortages.”

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‘Unsustainable and… dangerous’

On Wednesday, British Columbia’s health minister, Adrian Dix, said 10,435 patients — a record number — were in hospital Tuesday night, many of them with a respiratory illness.

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Emergency rooms elsewhere in the country were also over capacity as rates of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which can be serious for infants and older adults, have climbed steadily.

In Quebec, emergency rooms were at 137 per cent capacity on average, with Health Minister Christian Dubé saying about 1,900 people a day were visiting ERs, double the number compared to last year.

Click to play video: 'Crisis in Quebec hospital ERs not expected to improve anytime soon'

Crisis in Quebec hospital ERs not expected to improve anytime soon

Dubé said almost half of the daily emergency room visits are for non-urgent ailments that could be treated at a primary care clinic or doctor’s office but that it may be tough to get an appointment.

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“During respiratory illness season, (we) see surges in crisis in our emergency departments with more patients than we can treat at any given time,” Ross explained. “However, this crisis across Canada, with sustained pressures, sustained challenges with staffing and increased numbers of respiratory illnesses… is also contributing to a situation that is clearly unsustainable and quite frankly, dangerous.”

She said not only have patients had to wait more than 20 hours, but also some Canadians have died waiting to be seen in emergency rooms.

In its Thursday statement, the CMA said it believes it is well past time to transform and rebuild Canada’s health-care system, including investing in team-based primary care.

Team-based primary care involves a group of health-care professionals, such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists and social workers, who collaborate closely to provide comprehensive and patient-centered care.

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The CMA said it believes this approach to healthcare will help offset crowded emergency rooms, as these care teams will be able to see more patients and provide optimal care.

Another critical change required, Ross said, is for all provinces to sign on to the bilateral health-care funding agreements.

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Federal government signs agreement to commit $355 million to Nova Scotia’s health-care system

In February 2023, Ottawa announced a health funding deal worth $196.1 billion over 10 years to the provinces and territories, including $46.2 billion in new money. So far, only a few provinces have signed onto the deal, including B.C., Alberta, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.

“It is critically important at this time that governments across the country work together and sign on to the bilateral agreements that we heard about over the last year. Get additional dollars on the table,” Ross expressed. “I would like to see every bilateral agreement between provinces and territories in Canada signed by the end of January. So the dollars that we need to improve our health-care system get out the door.”

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— With files from Global News’ Katherine Ward and the Canadian Press

&copy 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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