Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Root Cause of Emergency Room Wait Times

My personal experience with trips to hospital emergency rooms is that wait times have increased over the last 25 years. Numerous newspaper articles on the subject seem to indicate that the trend to longer waits exists across Canada.

My latest data point came when my son broke a finger playing basketball. He made a nice play stealing a pass and drawing a foul and was rewarded with a finger not quite pointing in the right direction. My wife and I took a deep breath at the thought of a long wait at the hospital, but we had little choice. At least only one of us would have to wait with our son. Sadly, I couldn’t find my two-headed coin when we were deciding who would stay.

The wait to see a doctor was less than I feared at just over 5 hours. However, I can recall trips to the hospital for my own injuries decades ago when I waited less than an hour to see a doctor. What has changed?

In thinking about the root cause, I see the problem at ultimately coming from government debt. The Canadian government ran deficits through the 70s, 80s, and into the 90s. Turning this around in the mid-90s required cuts in government spending.

While there may be individual people, organizations, and political parties to blame for particular aspects of our current health care problems, once the debt had been built, funding pressure on our health care system was inevitable.


  1. 5 hours?! Where are you again? Toronto? Ottawa? Was this a weekend?

    I keep hearing about these long wait times, but I'm not seeing them here in London -- I've been in the hospital from the patient's side 3 times in the last 5 years (once while in Toronto), and the longest I had to wait was 30 minutes. The lineups only occasionally look that long when I'm walking through the ER...

    We do have a multi-month backup on MRI scans, which I always found kind of weird because they've increased staffing to the point where they can easily handle the load now (the wait times aren't getting longer)...

  2. Potato: I'm glad to hear that your wait times have been reasonable. Maybe we tend to hear more from people who wait the longest. MRI delays can be quite long. I've jumped the MRI queue by working the system twice in the last 5 years. One clinic I've been to that does specialized scanning solved the long queue problem. They won't take appointments for month n+1 until the 19th of month n. So, it's a race on the 19th of each month to see you can get an appointment for the next month. This guarantees that the official waiting time is never longer than 43 days.

  3. Your post relates indirectly to our current political turmoil. Stimulus and bailouts (and deficits) vs cautious fiscal policy (and smaller deficits). Each path has its own risks.