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Nova Scotia Health warns of longer emergency room wait times this summer

Nova Scotia Health says larger numbers of patients are expected to visit emergency rooms during summer, causing longer wait times.

Nova Scotia Health says emergency rooms are experiencing higher patient loads, resulting in longer wait times. (Thawornnurak/Shutterstock)

Nova Scotia Health says emergency departments throughout the province are seeing higher numbers of patients than they did before the third wave of COVID-19, so wait times may be longer this summer.

But a news release from the health authority on Friday said Nova Scotians who are experiencing a medical emergency should not hesitate to visit their nearest emergency department. 

Dr. Todd Howlett, the executive medical director for the central health zone, said there are several factors accounting for the increase in patient numbers.

According to Howlett, many people put off visiting an emergency department during recent COVID-19 surges — a phenomenon that was also seen during the first wave of COVID-19.

“It’s a cumulative effect of people that are seeking care and delayed that care,” he said. “So there’s a certain catch-up phenomenon that happens and I believe that’s part of what we’re seeing now.”

Dr. Todd Howlett is Nova Scotia Health’s executive medical director for the central health zone and an emergency room physician. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Howlett said another contributing factor was that some people who have been receiving primary care virtually may now want to go to an emergency room to be seen in person. 

Stress caused by the pandemic might also be affecting the mental and physical health of people, leading to emergency room visits, said Howlett.

He said patients are assessed when they arrive at an emergency room and assigned a triage level from one to five based on the severity of their condition. Patients assessed as level one are given the highest priority.

Seeing patients based on the triage system, Howlett said, means that it doesn’t matter if the patient walks into the hospital or arrives by ambulance, as their priority is based on the urgency of their case.

Howlett said staffing capacity in hospitals is also proving to be a challenge. 

“What we’re seeing is many of the people that worked on the frontlines throughout all the waves are tired and fatigued,” he said.

Be patient with staff

Howlett, who is also an emergency room physician, said many of those people need time off.

He said hospitals recognize that people may become frustrated and “act out” because of long waits, but they should keep in mind that hospital staff are under strain.

Howlett said although wait times may be longer, hospital staff are working hard to ensure they get the care they need.

Health-care institutions have learned many lessons from COVID-19 about patient flow and care access, and work is ongoing to improve systems within hospitals, he added.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll use some of those learnings to get to a different place and provide better care for patients throughout their continuum,” said Howlett.

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