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Patient Ombudsman
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Care in emergency departments

In addition to frustration with wait times, complaints about emergency departments touched on poor communication, being prematurely discharged, and lack of caring, sensitivity, courtesy and respect.

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Hospital emergency departments have become the crucible where many of the pressures on the health care system ignite.

In 2021/22 Patient Ombudsman received more than 300 complaints about the experiences of patients and caregivers in emergency departments. In addition to frustration with wait times, patients and caregivers reported poor communication, a lack of caring, sensitivity, courtesy and respect, feeling dismissed and being prematurely discharged. Caregivers reported concerns with their inability to stay with vulnerable, elderly family members, despite visitor policies that supported their presence. Of particular concern was the number of patients who reported they would be reluctant to return to hospital, even for emergency care, given their experiences.

Some complainants also acknowledged that their own behaviour, in response to their frustrations, had led to consequences including security interventions and loss of access.

Many of these complaints to Patient Ombudsman had not yet been reviewed by hospital patient relations departments or are still open and undergoing resolution. Some of these complaints reflect concerns with clinical conduct and decision-making and may ultimately fall primarily under the jurisdiction of the health professional regulatory colleges. However, the stories illustrate the challenges being experienced in emergency departments.

Our recommendations

The pressures on emergency departments are unlikely to lessen in the near future. Emergency department physicians and staff have been at the forefront of these pressures for more than two years, and the level of fatigue combined with ongoing staffing shortages, capacity issues and frustrated patients and caregivers make the work even more challenging. Despite these pressures, the complaints received by Patient Ombudsman highlight the importance of communication with patients and caregivers, including:

  1. Providing as much information as possible about expected wait times.
  2. Letting patients know what to do if they have urgent questions or their condition changes while they are waiting.
  3. Having information available for patients about alternatives to emergency department care for non-urgent needs.
  4. 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.
  5. Listening to patients and family members with a caring and courteous manner.