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Deaths in emergency rooms in NS reach six-year high, doctors point to ‘bed blockage’

Deaths in emergency rooms in NS reach six-year high, doctors point to ‘bed blockage’

ST. JOHN’S, NL — Emergency physicians in Atlantic Canada believe the high number of deaths is caused by “bed blocking” and patients with advanced disease that was not detected or treated earlier.

ST. JOHN’S, NL — Emergency physicians in Atlantic Canada believe the high number of deaths is caused by “bed blocking” and patients with advanced disease that was not detected or treated earlier.

According to the Nova Scotia Health Authority, the number of deaths in emergency rooms reached a six-year high in 2023: 666 deaths compared to 558 the year before.

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

Retired doctor Robert Martel, who worked in Nova Scotia’s emergency rooms for decades, says many emergency room beds are full because they are occupied by patients who cannot get a place in long-term care or who need community services.

He says patients also come to the emergency room much sicker than they should because they don’t have a primary care doctor who could have diagnosed their illness earlier.

Dr. Stephen Major, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, says there is a lot of evidence that patients have a worse prognosis if they stay in the emergency room long after they need emergency care.

Major is a general practitioner at St. John’s and worked in the emergency department before taking a break last year. He says the concept of “bed blocking” also forces doctors to compromise on treatment, which impacts their emotional health.

“There have been times when we’ve had 30 patients admitted and maybe three to five beds available to get people through,” he said. “We see the patients in a chair, in a corner, we put the patients anywhere we 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 authorities in all provinces need to begin long-term strategic planning to reduce pressure on emergency departments.

In his opinion, this planning should involve doctors, health care workers, long-term care providers and others who provide community-based care, such as home help.

“What we really need is a decision by governments that makes it a priority that these patients don’t stay in the emergency department for so long, because we know that kills people,” Howlett said. “By not tackling the problem, governments and planners are systematically supporting a level of service that virtually guarantees that people will be worse off.”

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

The Canadian Press