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Patient Ombudsman’s Blog


July 31st, 2023

Crunch Time in Emergency Departments

For most people, summer means sunshine, mosquitoes, and hot weather. It can also mean a busy time for hospitals and emergency departments, with vacationers increasing populations in small, rural communities. This, coupled with the well-known staffing issues, creates challenges for many health care organizations, sometimes resulting in the need to reduce the operating hours of emergency departments.

Given these pressures, it’s not surprising that complaints about emergency departments are a growing concern. In 2021/22, we received more than 300 complaints about experiences in emergency departments – approximately 14% of all hospital complaints that year. We also noted a 43% increase in the number of patients and caregivers who reported that they were treated with a lack of sensitivity, caring, courtesy or respect at hospitals, particularly in emergency departments.

What can patients and health organizations do to lessen the chance of a negative experience?

A visit to the emergency department can be a stressful time for patients, who may not be feeling well enough to ask questions or get the information they need. For those who can, here are some steps patients can take to help ease miscommunication and stress in the emergency department:

  • At check-in, ask how long the expected wait time is and who you should speak to if you have questions, or your situation gets worse while you wait.

  • Let the appropriate staff know if your symptoms are worsening.

  • When discharged, ask for the instructions about your care in writing, and what you should do if your condition worsens after you are discharged from hospital.

Our 2021/22 annual report sets out recommendations to hospitals to help address some of these concerns, including:

  • Providing as much information as possible about expected wait times.

  • Letting patients know what to do if they have urgent questions or their condition changes while they are waiting.

  • Having information available about alternatives to emergency department care for non-urgent needs.

  • Explaining the hospital’s policy about the ability for a family member or caregiver to enter and remain in the emergency department with vulnerable patients and ensuring family members know who to contact if they are not permitted to stay.

  • Listening to patients and family members with a caring and courteous manner.

As an office of last resort, Patient Ombudsman reviews complaints after the organization involved has had a chance to respond to a patient’s concerns. If you’ve had a negative experience in hospital, contact the hospital’s patient relations department to work through the hospital’s complaints process. If you are not satisfied with the hospital’s response, or if the matter places you or other patients at risk, contact Patient Ombudsman.

We recognize that hospitals and other health organizations are working to provide excellent care in the face of significant pressures. Ensuring clear communication with patients and caregivers, especially around wait times and service delivery, can go a long way to address some of these challenges.


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