MONTREAL — Quebec's health minister on Tuesday defended his government's efforts to reduce wait times in hospitals, yet admitted it was "completely unacceptable" two people died in a Montreal-area emergency room last week.
The deaths at Anna-Laberge hospital, in Chateauguay, Que., south of Montreal, are now the subject of investigations by the Quebec coroner's office and the local health authority, Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux de la Montérégie-Ouest.
Health officials have refused to provide details, including the dates the deaths occurred.
The two patients died during what the authority described in an email on Tuesday as a period of high traffic and "very high" wait times in its facilities.
On Tuesday, a government website listed an average waiting room stay of nine hours and 44 minutes at Anna-Laberge hospital, where stretcher occupancy was at 206 per cent capacity.
"Every effort is being made to reduce the pressure on emergency departments, for the well-being of both teams and patients," the authority that oversees the hospital said in the statement, adding that meetings were underway with the provincial Department of Health and other regional officials to address the situation. "We will never compromise on patient safety."
The two deaths prompted Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé to pay a "surprise visit" to Anna-Laberge on Sunday to "take the pulse of what's happening on the ground," his office confirmed by email.
"One thing is certain: we need to improve the situation not only in our emergency departments, but throughout the entire patient journey, from pre-hospital to post-hospital," the statement said.
In response to overloaded hospitals and long wait times, Dubé in October appointed a coordinator to, among other things, find ways emergency rooms can process patients more quickly.
Dubé told reporters in Quebec City on Tuesday that he asked the coordinator to meet with doctors at Anna-Laberge to discuss the situation at the hospital.
"We're going to follow this very, very closely," the minister said.
The deaths in Chateauguay came more than a year after Quebec began implementing recommendations from a government "crisis unit" dedicated to reducing stress on emergency rooms.
Dubé on Tuesday praised the unit's work but said some hospitals, partly because of management roadblocks, have yet to apply its recommendations. The minister pointed to his pending health reform legislation, known as Bill 15, as a solution.
But Paul Brunet, president and CEO of Montreal-based patient advocacy organization Conseil pour les protection des malades, says the province could ease emergency room congestion by improving elder care.
Treating seniors before their health problems deteriorate into emergencies could reduce ER visits and free up "dozens, probably hundreds of beds, which could be used for other purposes," Brunet explained. "We continue to send elderly people to hospital because they weren't treated in a timely fashion."
Standing alongside Dubé on Tuesday, the provincial minister responsible for seniors, Sonia Bélanger, acknowledged the high number of seniors in Quebec hospitals, saying "it's important to find the right place" for their care.
She said Quebec is in the process of opening 200 new places in Montreal-area nursing homes and assisted-living residences with the goal of liberating hospital beds. The creation of another 300 places in private seniors residences is also in the works, she said.
Meanwhile, the next few weeks could further exacerbate crowding in Quebec emergency rooms. In a news release Tuesday, the Health Department warned of possible "higher-than-normal" wait times in the month ahead for some front-line services amid public-sector strikes and a propagation of respiratory viruses.
The province's 811 health-care hotline, for example, maintains only 60 per cent of its nursing staff on strike days, according to the department. It assured that it would continue to offer essential services at all times but encouraged Quebecers to seek care outside of emergency rooms for non-urgent situations.
"I'm being very transparent: it's going to be tough," Dubé said, describing the anticipated additional pressure on the health network in the coming weeks.
He asked Quebecers who contract viruses to call their pharmacists, family doctors and the 811 line before they visit an emergency room.
"Maybe two hours on the phone is better than being at the emergency (room), where it's very long."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2023.
— With files from Caroline Plante in Quebec City.
Thomas MacDonald, The Canadian Press