First off, as this is a Canadian blog, I don’t work in Texas…
Secondly, about two weeks ago, I came on shift and there was no space to see anyone – nothing new (see Our New Normal) – but when I looked at the “Wall of Shame” that shows the diversion notices of the facilities in the region, the ENTIRE REGION, INCLUDING US, had diversion notices up. The regional health authority that covers the major urban centre just south of us only permits its ER’s to go on for an hour…and even then, there is a lot of explaining to do. Here, on the other hand, some of the facilities go on for days at a time. Only one place had the cojones to actually close the ER out permanently; the others are open solely (or so it appears to this guys) based on the flip of a coin, day of the week (weekend ER stipends are pretty good) and the call rotation at that hospital. One hospital even went so far as to not allow locums there to cover the ER for the summer, but got funding for coverage that is at best hit or miss.
There are many issues at play here. Top few would include burnout, lack of staffing/lack of proper utilization of staff, egos, leadership, overuse of facilities for non-emergent reasons. Health care in any province in Canada is always the biggest political hot potato on the go – since it’s perceived as being free, people use it without thought. We even have 1-800 numbers to call if you’re feeling sick to talk to a nurse, who will inevitably come to the end of the algorhythm and say “go see your family doctor, go to a walk in clinic or go to the ER”. In our “everything must get fixed now” society, few people wait to see their family doc. The other issue is this in itself – nobody in their right mind is going to give medical advice over the phone to someone they don’t know, about something they can’t see or touch – hence the default is always go to the ER if you’re worried.
Before you get the wrong idea about me, hard work isn’t below me, however, working extra hard because someone else isn’t puling their weight really offends me, especially if they’re getting paid a fair amount more than me to do it. I was off handedly asked what I thought of for solutions to some of our ER woes about a year ago and, like I’d been trained, came up with some potential courses of action with no throw away options. All these had pro’s and con’s and would require a great deal of political and individual backbone and leadership to accomplish, but I thought they were workable. These included centralizing control over all the usable ER’s in the region and staffing with one emergency medicine group to ensure coverage and couple this with closing a certain number of the smaller ER’s outright. Other options were letting go or disciplining non-performers, and adding PA’s and NP’s to staffing of some areas.
In the mean time, we’re continuing to be pretty busy – wait times vary depending on how many beds we have in the dept, up stairs on the ward and in the region and how sick some people are. To those that are facing these waits, here are some hints:
1 – Be prepared to wait – have a book or something to pass the time with. This keeps frustration levels to a minimum.
2 – Yelling and screaming and carrying on mean your airway is open, you’re breathing and your brain is getting oxygen. It also tells me that, more often than not, you’re not as sick as you think you are – you’re not getting in any faster because you’re being a nuisance and you might in fact be leaving earlier than you think – in hand cuffs.
3 – We’re not a restaurant or fast food outlet. What that means is don’t come in ordering the treatment you want – it doesn’t work like that. “I want an order of McPercocet with a side of Azythromycin” isn’t going to get you a pleasant response. This is how the system works – you tell us what is wrong, we check you out, do what tests are necessary and prescribe what is best for you based on what we went to school to learn about and best current practice guidelines. If you waited for 6 hours with a cold, don’t think we’re going to “reward” you with antibiotics for waiting (you’d be surprised how many times this happens).
4 – If you have a legitimate complaint about something, put it down on paper – we have forms for that. I always finish encounters by asking “Questions, queries, rude comments?”. If someone has problems, I try to fix them and if I can’t, send patients where they need to go. If it’s about me, same same. Conversely, if someone gave you a good experience, ensure you pass that along too, since we rarely get hear about those, only badness. If the issue is systemic, contact the CEO of the RHA AND your MLA AND the Ministry of Health direct. However, if you’re just whining (which some people do incidentally), please don’t bother.
5 – Showing up with a chief complaint that goes back longer than 6 months and you need sorted out NOW (at 2 in the morning) because you’re going on a trip tomorrow ISN’T AN EMERGENCY. Nor is a prescription refill, nor is an isolated blood pressure reading you did at the local pharmacy that reads above normal without symptoms – they are family medicine problems. If you were to receive the bill for the actual cost the Province pays to the hospital, via your tax dollars, for an ER visit, you’d likely be back with a legitimate stroke or heart attack. In the same vein, showing up with cold symptoms of 1-2 hours duration is not only not going to get you much sympathy, it’s also not going to get you a prescription. Conversely, if you have an actual emergency, worry about you, not the bread rising at home (actual occurence) and don’t try to escape too early.
6 – Seeing two or three providers in one day from different clinics and then going to the ER, because you didn’t get or hear what you wanted, for “another opinion”, will likely result in things similar to #3 and 5 as well as possibly outright derision. Something many people don’t realize about medical folks – we’re here to tell you things you don’t want to hear, but need to hear and listen to. Some of us are more diplomatic about it, but I’m pretty blunt with people that abuse the system or think they’re the one special snowflake in the world. If you want a second opinion after seeing your primary care provider, ask them for a consultation with a specialist or another primary care doctor – most will happily oblige. The ER isn’t the place for that unless it’s actually an emergency.
Emergency departments in a publically funded health system are finite resources, but because they’re publically funded, many people feel they’re allowed to use and abuse them as they see fit. There are also systemic problems at play as well I’ll comment on later, but at the moment, a combination of staffing and patient population are causing a great strain on the places that need to have the “dams” opened up to allow for flow. I will conclude with this – if you’re not having a true emergency or very urgent medical problem, try to avoid the ER. If you’re a worker in one that’s getting a little slack in the work ethic, pull your pants up and do your job. Medicine is a team sport, from patient to super sub-specialist doctor to Minister of Health- we all have a role to play in this game and have to do our parts.