Metro Vancouver heatwave prompts rethink of strategies at hospitals: doctor

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The Lower Mainland heatwave that triggered a massive influx of 9-1-1 calls and overwhelmed the system this week is forcing some to review emergency responses.

The head of Emergency Medicine for Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Health says they’ve never received the number of heat-related calls they saw earlier this week.

“In the last five days, we’ve had something like 200 heat-related visits, and typically, we don’t get more than five to 10 in a year,” Dr. Eric Grafstein said Wednesday. “So this is far and away the busiest we have ever been in terms of heat-related problems, ever, in Vancouver.”

Grafstein says the heatwave pushed emergency rooms to capacity, which creates a cascading effect and can increase wait times by hours.

He explains most of the patients who came in were “quite sick.”

The heatwave pushed not just hospitals to new limits, but all first responders. E-COMM has confirmed record call volumes, with the Ambulance Paramedics of BC noting many calls took hours for a response over the weekend.

“I would say that this level of heat and the impact it had probably will make us rethink our plans, because I’m guessing this won’t be the last time that we see hot temperatures. I don’t think it’s a one-and-done,” Grafstein, who works at St. Paul’s and Vancouver General Hospital, told NEWS 1130.

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He says there were no special changes made to operations when word came down about the extreme heat.

“I think people recognized that there might be a risk that hospitals would be busier than normal. I think that all hospitals have a surge plan, and plans that they use to help decongest the EDs, and those were enacted as well. But I think that we were probably busier than even we anticipated because we’ve never seen this kind of response to heat,” he explained, adding he believes part of the issues faced were because “the population, in general, is aging.”

“Typically we would put a call out for extra physicians — that’s on the manpower side. On the in-patient side, there’s activations of plans to move people out of the EDs as quickly as possible,” he explained, adding there are a number of steps hospitals take in such circumstances.

Temperatures on the Lower Mainland crept into the 30s and even 40s on Monday. The heatwave was being blamed for more than 100 deaths, with B.C.’s top coroner warning more deaths were likely.

Grafstein says there have been a lot of things to be learned by what unfolded during this heatwave.

For one, he commends healthcare staff in local hospitals.

“These were not easy conditions to work in when it’s so busy in the emergency departments,” he told NEWS 1130, adding he’s been impressed by the efforts of staff, especially considering the strain they’ve been under due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises.

“As a group of emergency departments in the region and also of hospitals, I think we will need to think about how we prepare when there are these projected heatwaves in the future,” Grafstein said. 

That could include bringing in extra staff, examining capacity at hospitals during such events, and planning for how schedules can be shifted.

“We had a lot of people come to the hospital but there were also a significant number of people that died at home, and I think that from a community perspective, making sure that people who live alone that they have good ways to check up on them,” he added.

However, he admits it’s hard to know exactly what these kinds of situations will bring.

“I think there’s both community preparation and hospital preparation. And to be honest, just general public awareness of how sick you can get, and things like keeping hydrated, and avoiding going out — those are important messages to get out to everyone so that everyone is prepared and knows how to deal with the heat.”

-With files from Martin MacMahon

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