The Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU) today called on the province to open at least 40 fully-funded and permanent beds at Health Sciences North (HSN). The beds are needed to alleviate the consistent strain from insufficient beds at the hospital, recently highlighted by the influx of patients suffering from the flu and other respiratory illnesses.

OCHU in block letters, H is in a blue square, Ontario Council of Hospital Unions

Too many patients and a critical shortage of hospital beds at HSN is no “blip” and constant hospital overcrowding should not be accepted as “the new normal,” says Sharon Richer, OCHU’s secretary-treasurer and former HSN staff. 

According to HSN the cost of being overcapacity for the fiscal year ending March 2016 was $3.5 million.                                                            

With occupancy of between 110 and 120 per cent since the start of 2017, “dozens of admitted patients are routinely waiting for an in-patient bed each day. The Ontario Liberal government’s “fixation with a policy of few beds, few staff, very high bed occupancy and too low funding, is causing serious capacity problems at HSN and hospitals across Ontario,” says Richer.

Data shows that Ontario has the fewest hospital beds of any province in Canada and the fewest staff for those beds. In less than two decades, Ontario has cut more than 18,000 hospital beds. The result is that, like in Sudbury, many Ontario hospitals are reeling from high bed occupancy rates and in many cases are overcapacity for long periods of time with ad hoc patient beds being put in tub rooms, solariums and emergency department hallways.

“All this poses potential harm to patients who are entitled to timely and safe hospital care. Unfortunately, patients are being put at risk because our hospitals don’t have enough beds to admit those who require in-hospital care. We urge the health minister to act and restore 40 fully-funded beds to HSN immediately,” says Richer.

HSN has 458 beds. Adding 40 permanent beds (less than a 10 per cent increase) would bring the hospital’s bed capacity to 498. A level high enough to deal with the recent patient surges the hospital has been challenged with.

Data shows hospitals in the other provinces are funded at 25 per cent more than Ontario hospitals. Over 18,000 beds have been closed in Ontario over the last few decades despite a growing and ageing population.

“Continuing to run our hospital system with no spare bed capacity, indeed at most times, over 100 per cent full, is the opposite of the ‘first do no harm’ principle that our health system is based on. Experts say capacity over 85 per cent is dangerous. How can patient safety be assured when hospitals are too full, and at between 100 and 120 per cent capacity?” Richer asks.

The Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) maintains in their 2017 pre-budget submission to government that hospitals have made $4.5 billion in budget cuts on behalf of the province. The OHA says the average occupancy has grown to more than 92 per cent at Ontario’s hospitals. Studies show that bed occupancies upwards of 85 per cent are associated with greater risks for patients including higher risk of infection. Overcrowding also creates problems handling both emergency and elective admissions. At the Windsor hospital, which has dealt with overcrowding for a sustained period of time, surgeries have been cancelled.

“There is absolutely no surge capacity in the system and hospital staff from nurses to cleaners are working at an exhausting pace, because they have too many patients to care for,” says Richer.

Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office estimates health care needs about a 5.3 per cent annual increase to meet basic costs, driven higher than inflation by drugs and medical technologies.