Emergency departments and other hospital services have closed a record number of times in Ontario so far in 2023, according to a new Ontario Health Coalition report being described as “staggering.”
As of Nov. 24, there had been 867 temporary emergency department closures in the province this year, including more than a dozen temporary overnight closures at Carleton Place & District Memorial Hospital, mostly earlier this year, and a handful at Almonte General Hospital, the most recent just in November. Arnprior Regional Health also temporarily closed its emergency department twice overnight, in May. All three hospitals are located outside Ottawa.
Across Ontario, there was one permanent emergency department closure in Minden.
In addition, there have been 316 temporary and permanent overnight closures at urgent care centres, two outpatient laboratory closures, 11 obstetrics unit closures, one long-term labour and delivery unit closure and one temporary intensive care unit closure, in Hamilton.
Those 1,199 closures of “vital hospital services” totaled more than 31,000 hours of care lost to communities this year, Ontario Health Coalition head Natalie Mehra said.
“These closures are staggering. The numbers are like nothing we have seen before,” Mehra told a media conference at Queen’s Park on Tuesday. “These are the most urgent health-care services that we have in our communities. That means, without question, peoples’ lives have been put at risk.”
Until 2022, temporary emergency department closures in Ontario were rare. But staff shortages, especially a shortage of nurses, forced a number of closures that year and numbers continued to rise in 2023 as the health staffing crisis worsened and COVID-19 continued to affect nurses, putting more strain on hospitals.
In addition to closures in smaller hospitals around Ottawa this year, there have been frequent emergency department and other service closures across the province. Some of the most difficult have been in the north, where hospitals can be hours apart.
In some parts of mid-western Ontario — in Perth, Huron Wellington, Dufferin, Bruce and Gray counties — multiple emergency departments have been closed at the same time, with little notice.
“Patients in medical crisis have to confirm on their own that the next hospital emergency isn’t also closed,” Mehra said.
Opposition politicians at Queen’s Park called for urgent action from the provincial government to better fund hospitals and bring nurses back into the system
“Hospitals are a safety net for everyone and these closure rates are absolutely shocking,” said France Gélinas, NDP critic for health.
Opposition politicians also said the government’s focus on privatizing delivery of health care was worsening the situation in public hospitals because they were likely to poach nurses from the public system. Meanwhile, hospital emergency departments will face more staff shortages.
The province’s move to fund more private clinics is set to expand in 2024 with the opening of private day-surgery clinics to offer less complex surgical procedures covered by OHIP. Recent reporting has shown that at least one private clinic receives significantly more per surgery than public hospitals do.
Ontario Green leader Mike Schreiner called for the provincial government to end the privatization of health care, to stop its appeal of wage restraint legislation and to properly fund all health-care sectors.
“It is shameful that Ontario has the lowest per capita funding for health care in the country,” Schreiner said.
A spokesman for Ontario’s Health Minister Sylvia Jones said the province has increased funding to the hospital sector by four per cent this year.
In addition, 15,000 nurses and 2,400 physicians have been added to the province’s health workforce through changes to break down barriers for “internationally and interprovincially” educated health care workers and expanded a learn and stay grant, said spokesperson Hannah Jensen. The province also extended a temporary locum program which provides urgent locum coverage to rural and local hospitals in need of physicians.
“Since we initially extended this program going into the summer, all hospitals in need of physician coverage and all northern hospitals stayed open throughout the summer,” she said.
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