Some good and some bad news regarding Alberta’s health care system. First the bad: the median time it takes to get a bed after arriving at provincial ERs is more than 14 hours, up from 11 in 2007 (by comparison, the median wait time in Ontario is 12.1 hours). Now the good: most patients at Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge get a bed in just three hours, and 30 per cent of those visiting the ER see a doctor within half an hour—far, far quicker than the provincial average of 2.6 hours. “Chinook’s getting better and the province is getting worse,” says Dr. John Cowell, chief executive officer of the Health Quality Council of Alberta.
Diane Shanks, Chinook’s director of emergency care, says the hospital used private consultants, and a grant from the province, to develop a dedicated approach to keeping wait times down. “The in-patient unit, the seniors’ outflow and community care groups, the lab, ICU, everybody is working to make sure we keep people in beds when they should be in beds, and trying not to delay moving them to where they need to go for the best care,” she says.
Following that integrated model, Chinook staff have a daily “bed huddle” that examines expected discharges and admissions, and tries to ensure there will be enough space before patients arrive. The hospital also emphasizes communication between departments to prevent unnecessary retesting and help stop bottlenecks. “In the past, beds were emergency’s problem,” says Vanessa Maclean, medical director for Alberta Health’s south zone. “Now everybody is responsible for how patients flow through the hospital.”
Cowell says the only other hospital in Canada he knows of using a similar program is Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray, and that it’s had similar success. The best thing Alberta hospitals can do, he says, is follow the two hospitals’ example. “I think it would behoove the rest of the system to take a hike on down there and say, ‘Just what the heck did you guys do?’ ”