Hospital wait times have been awful since the dawn of time (okay maybe since the dawn of hospitals), but the current situation is quite bad. A recent report by Health Quality Ontario found that in September, the average time patients spent waiting in hospital emergency rooms before being admitted was 21.3 hours. Almost a full day! How a person can even function well enough to speak to a doctor after waiting for such a long time is beyond me. I would have to assume that a 21.3 hour wait means 21.3 hours spent awake in an uncomfortable chair, because the last thing a person in an emergency room would want is to fall asleep and miss their name being called. Astounding!
It is likely that the 21.3 hour average applies more to city hospitals than it does to rural ones, but rural hospitals are now facing an even bigger crisis – complete emergency room shutdowns. A recent article written by James Pascual of Farmers Forum sheds some light on the problem. While Kemptville’s hospital is name-checked in the article as one example of a hospital that has had to close its emergency room several times, staffing shortages have been identified as the cause of emergency room shutdowns in rural hospitals all across the province. Nurses are largely burnt out and feeling unvalued after working hard during the pandemic. Legislation last year – specifically Bill 124 – capped nurse’s wage increases in Ontario not long after they were declared as frontline heroes. Perhaps this situation is a lesson for Doug Ford in the fact that collective bargaining is not about getting rich, but is rather about setting working conditions and compensation levels that help in recruiting and retaining the staff who keep critical institutions open. Power moves look more like foolish moves in the long run – back-to-work legislation is often ineffective and has no hope of working on those who resign completely.
Doom and gloom regarding staffing aside, there must be other ways to increase hospital efficiency and reduce wait times, right? Well, perhaps the only solution would be an ad hoc flash mob of sensible Ontarians who decide only to use hospital services for hospital-worthy problems. Hospitals have always, in my experience, had a policy of unwelcomeness. This is out of necessity, because healthcare services are expensive, and those using these services who don’t really need them take away resources from those who do. Much like the stereotypical catch phrase of many convenience stores is “Thank You, Come Again!”, hospitals seem to require the motto “Thank You, Don’t Come Again!”
On one occasion as a child, I was at the hospital waiting room with my mom, though I can’t remember what for (hopefully it was for a valid reason, or this story would be somewhat hypocritical!). I vividly recall an elderly lady in the hospital waiting room with us, and she was making idle conversation with my mom. Waiting times were not nearly as bad back then, and after a short while a staff member who I assume was a nurse came in and informed the elderly lady that they were sending her home. She had nothing more than a viral infection and there was nothing the hospital would be able to do for her. As the lady gathered her things, she turned to my mom and asked, “Don’t you remember the good old days, when they would always send you home with some pills that would fix you right up?”
It is true that antibiotics don’t work for viral infections, and they never have. Nevertheless, I am among the probably thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands?) of people who remember the magic of childhood hospital visits, and the many a time I would get sent home with wonderful tasting medicine that would make me feel astronomically better in less than a day. Who remembers banana medicine? Oh that sweet nectar of healing almost made it worth being sick. Yum!
So why is it that so many people seem to not understand that antibiotics only work for bacterial infections? I have several theories. One factor is probably that kids are germy creatures who get bacterial infections more frequently than adults, and so many of us remember frequently getting antibiotics prescribed to us as children. Maybe this creates a sort of “Mandela Effect” where we all seem to remember a false past when antibiotics healed all. Another factor is more obvious – laypeople simply don’t know how to tell if they have a viral or a bacterial infection and end up at the hospital seeking relief of nothing more than the common cold.
I recently made a hospital visit with my 11-year-old when we both had persistent sore throats with no other symptoms. I was worried that we had strep throat, which is bacterial and does often require antibiotics. About five hours later (we got off easy!), the Doctor informed us that she believed it was just a virus. A throat swab and a COVID-19 swab revealed that we had neither strep throat nor COVID – we were one of “those people” who waited hours for nothing. Not the hospital’s fault, of course. We should have made family doctor appointments, but sometimes, the immediacy and 24-hour nature of the hospital emergency room is the only option that is practically available, and is often the only nearby option for those without family doctors.
It is clear that hospitals need more staff to function properly and to stay open consistently, particularly rural hospitals. One would be foolish to believe that we are going to fix our hospitals by convincing the entire population to stop showing up at them for anything except the most serious of illnesses. But as I have seen many locals urge on social media lately, I must agree that no harm can come from simply staying home when sick with viral symptoms. Ride out the illness without spreading it to others, and save room in the emergency department of the local hospital by simply staying out of it. You’ll probably get well faster in bed, anyway! So today’s advice, until the province can get its act together and figure out how to hire and retain nurses, is for hospitals to stress a new motto of “Thank You, Stay Away!” Maybe it should go on a plaque. Money well wasted.