Let's have some compassion for Emergency Room patients held hostage for hours, afraid to venture anywhere for fear of missing their turn. Susan Mintzberg, Special to Montreal Gazette
Our health minister may be pleased with how our health-care system is being managed, but when it takes 13 hours of wait time to put a cast on a simple fracture, you find yourself questioning what exactly is broken.
Although the people at the top may want us to believe that there are enough doctors to go around, we, who are left sitting in the hospital hallways and waiting rooms, know that this is an absurd truth.
But instead of arguing about when this might change (since that will not be anytime soon) how about focusing instead on humanity and how it is lacking in our broken system. To explain, I will share a story.
Recently, my 11-year-old boy hurts his thumb. To avoid overcrowding the ER with non-emergencies, we headed to a walk-in clinic, arriving at 9:30 a.m. By noon we had seen a doctor and completed X-rays (at another clinic), which confirmed a small fracture. We were then sent the Montreal Children’s Hospital for a cast. We arrived at 1 p.m., doctor’s note and X-ray in hand.
We were told to bypass triage and head for the waiting room. Three hours later, still in the waiting room, we are wondering why we had been sent to the ER and whether perhaps there was somewhere else to go. As we consider alternatives and who might provide us with information, the loudspeaker announces that the wait time for less urgent cases was five hours, then six hours, then eight hours, and that no questions about wait times would be answered.
We understood that we were now hostages of the system: no information, no one to ask, nowhere to go … just a broken bone in a broken system, waiting for a cast.
Seven hours later, a doctor came to inform us that the thumb was indeed broken and that it would need a cast. Not so helpful: that just confirmed the information that we had presented upon our arrival at the hospital. Another few hours went by and finally at 10:30 p.m., 13 hours after it all began, the cast was placed and the boy and his set thumb returned home.
In the end, we did find ourselves contributing to the unnecessary overcrowding of the ER, but ironically the system itself was responsible.
However, the real point of this story is not about the time it took, nor about the broken system, but about patients finding themselves in situations where they become hostages of a system that makes little effort to treat them with care. We are told to sit and wait, with no further information, and whether that means one hour or 13 hours makes no difference. Patients are stuck in limbo, afraid to venture anywhere on the chance that their name might be called at some random moment and they miss their turn in the queue.
Is this the best we can do? In a time where technology is so smart, might there not be simple ways to add some humanity to our broken system? How about providing information about alternative options when the ER is overloaded? Or integrating a system that sends automated texts to patients who are low priority informing them that their turn may be coming up shortly, thus allowing them to wander until there is an actual chance that they will be seen.
Emergency rooms and wait times are unpredictable, we know this. But we also know that some (if not most) emergencies will take time, so how about we treat this reality with honesty. Patients, families, doctors and staff are in this together, all doing their best to get to the end of the day as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Perhaps it is time to cast some compassion on a broken system that needs healing.
Susan Mintzberg is a PhD candidate in the School of Social Work at McGill University.