The death of a Nova Scotia woman who waited seven hours at a Cumberland County hospital emergency department has prompted health-care advocates to wonder, “When is the breaking point?”
On Monday, the husband of Allison Holthoff, 37, detailed how she waited in excruciating pain at the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre emergency room on New Year’s Eve.
“She said, ‘I think I’m dying. Don’t let me die here,’” Gunter Holthoff told reporters during a news conference.
Allison Holthoff — who was a mother of three, an avid community volunteer and deputy chief of the local fire department — died that night.
Alexandra Rose, the provincial co-ordinator for the Nova Scotia Health Coalition, said the province’s health-care system is in a “dire situation.”
“It’s so scary. And we have to wonder, when is the breaking point? Is this the breaking point now that somebody has passed away? It was a senseless death,” she said.
The Nova Scotia Health Coalition includes labour groups, community health groups and students who are advocating for better health care.
A situation like Holthoff’s death, Rose said, spurs the group to further pressure the government for change.
“The first thing we think about is where do we go from here? How can we help? Is there anything we can say? Do we look at different policies? Who do we put the pressure on? And what are the next steps, then, into addressing this?” she said.
She pointed out that complaints about long ER wait times have been growing, and that Holthoff’s death was unfortunately “bound to happen.”
Rose added that the backlogs in the province’s emergency departments are due in large part to the lack of primary care.
According to the latest numbers from Nova Scotia Health, 129,321 people in the province are on the doctor wait-list as of Jan. 1. The statistics show 1,622 people were removed from the registry in December 2022, but 5,665 people were added that same month.
“There are walk-in clinics, but as you know, there’s not that many. Their hours are very short. They see as many people as they can,” Rose said.
“But at the end of the day, there’s more people needing that service than they’re able to fit in. So then these people have no choice but to then access ER.”
Health-care workers feeling the ‘burden’ of stressed system
Dr. Colin Audain, the president-elect of Doctors Nova Scotia, told Global News that health-care workers are feeling the burden of a stressed system too.
“Everybody’s doing their best to do what they can to make up for the deficiencies in the system,” he said.
He agrees with the assessment that capacity issues at the province’s ERs are caused by a shortage of family doctors. He said patients who wouldn’t normally head to the emergency department are finding themselves with few other options.
The problem is also exacerbated by a lack of long-term beds and staffing shortages.
“There’s a lot of patients that are in the emergency department who have been admitted to the hospital but haven’t been able to go to their floor beds because those floor beds are being occupied by patients who no longer need to be in the acute care setting, but require long-term care beds that just don’t exist right now,” he explained.
There’s a “trickle-down effect,” he said, and it’s not just the emergency departments that are feeling the impact.
He said recruitment and retention of doctors is paramount to alleviate the strain on the entire system.
“We should … do whatever we can to keep the physician trainees — the family medicine residents that we’re training here in the province — whatever we can to encourage them to stay in the province and not look elsewhere for employment,” he said.
The Nova Scotia Health Authority has confirmed that a quality review is being conducted in Holthoff’s death, but says the process is confidential.
Michelle Thompson, the province’s minister of health and wellness, told Global News Monday that her death was “a very, very heartbreaking situation.”
She said she’s waiting to see the results of the review, and that her government is committed to providing “safe and timely access to care across this province.”
“I would like to reassure Nova Scotians that they should present to the emergency room if they need care, that we have wonderful health-care providers here and we need to understand how best to support them, and the quality review will support us in doing that,” she said.
Premier Tim Houston and the PC Party campaigned on a promise to fix health care during the 2021 election. In November 2022, Houston told the legislature that the commitment was “taking time and it’s taking money.”
He pointed to several initiatives, such as announcing EHS would hire 100 transport operators and changing medical licensing for paramedics to get them working sooner.
Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said Tuesday that government needs to be more focused on the outcomes in hospitals.
“This is life and death as we’ve seen for people and the health-care system needs to be there for people when they need it,” he said.
— with a file from Skye Bryden-Blom
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