I had an experience this weekend that has given me some insight into the looming impact of our ageing population on our health care system. You hear and read about the problems facing health care in Canada, but fortunately is isn’t too often that we get to see them up close.
At about 5:30am Sunday morning I decided that I better go to the Royal Jubilee hospital to get checked out as my temperature was at about 103 Degrees (39.7) (I’m on doctors orders to get medical attention right away if I develop a high temperature because of my currently depressed immune system). So I arrived at the hospital at 6am, and there were two people (yes only two) in front of me. I was quite pleased as I thought this would mean that I would be seen by a doctor fairly quickly. At about 7am I was still in the waiting room with the same two other people, when someone from the lab arrived to take some blood samples from me. I thought that it was a little odd that they would do this in the waiting room, but was happy as I expected that this would speed things up. I continued to wait, and at about 10am I went to the Tim Horton’s in the hospital to get something to eat as the Nursing staff continued to tell everyone that arrived at the triage desk that the emergency ward was full and that they would have a long wait. Between 6am and 10am only five or six more people arrived to the triage desk, one of whom was immediately admitted because of the seriousness of his aliment, and the rest sat in the waiting room with me.
Not long after 10am, I was taken back into the emergency ward and couldn’t believe what I saw. I trusted the hospital staff when they said that the emergency ward was full, but not only were all the regular beds full, but the hallway leading from the outside of the hospital to the main area of the emergency ward was bumper to bumper with elderly people on gurneys waiting for a proper bed. While I had been sitting in the waiting room, I was not able to see all the elderly people being brought in by the ambulance staff from nursing homes in the down town area. Now that I was in the ward I could see and hear what was going on. Ambulances and vans from nursing homes arrived on a regular basis with elderly patients suffering from everything from broken hips to dehydration from the flu. The few life threatening cases were given beds right away, and the less pressing cases backed up in the entrance hallway. By my unofficial count (as I walked to and from the bathroom) all but two people in the ward were under 60 years old. Admittedly the Royal Jubilee hospital is in an older part of town, but over 95% of the admitted patients were over 60 years old.
As I lay resting in my bed for most of the day I could overhear some of the conversations between the intake nurses and the elderly people in the hallway who had not yet been properly admitted. Many of these people were clearly suffering from some degree of dementia, and the staff had a difficult time getting information from them to help them make a good diagnosis. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to try to help someone who cannot communicate very well. Actually I do know what that is like, because I have a one year old daughter. And that is how the staff kindly treated the patients with dementia; like small children.
This is completely anecdotal, no statistics or science used in forming this option, but given the demographics of our population I would guess that this problem is not going to improve on its own any time soon. I’m not sure what would be the best way to try to alleviate the problem. You can always throw more money at the problem and try to fix it the same way you’ve been doing it, but on a larger scale (i.e. add more beds to the hospital). However in the zero sum game of budget politics, the extra hospital beds may come from fewer seats available in Universities, or higher taxes. Not very fun choices to make. I hope we have a better solution for the problem before I’m ready for retirement.