September 23, 2022
2 min read
TORONTO — A health-care staffing crisis and another wave of COVID-19 are pushing emergency departments across Canada to the brink, with wait times hitting new highs and several hospitals recently being forced to temporarily close their ERs.
The Canadian Press spoke with emergency physicians across the country who discussed what patients should consider before seeking emergency care and why, for some patients, the emergency room is still one of the only options available.
What should patients consider before seeking emergency care?
Despite the pressures facing hospitals, it’s critical no one feels dissuaded from visiting the emergency department when they need urgent medical attention, said Dr. Lucas Chartier, deputy medical director for the emergency department at Toronto’s University Health Network.
There is no all-encompassing guideline around when or when not to head to the ER, given each patient has their own unique considerations.
Generally, doctors say to seek emergency care in acute conditions, such as severe shortness of breath or serious uncontrollable bleeding. Minor aches and pains, or fever and sore throats, can often be directed to less-urgent care settings, doctors said.
The ER will treat the most pressing issues first, Chartier said, which means that “some patients who perceive their ailments to be significant may not be in relation to the other issues that we have to deal with, which leads to longer than expected wait times.”
“This is where having peoples’ understanding and comprehension and empathy is really important,” he said.
Dr. Tanya Munroe, the department head of emergency medicine for the northern zone in Nova Scotia Health, said schools could provide more effective health literacy education, so people can eventually feel more confident self-managing their conditions.
“Having said that, if you are acutely ill, injured, or very, very concerned – we will always be there to see you,” she said.
What are some alternative options if a trip to the emergency room can wait?
Dr. Bill Sevcik, chair of the emergency medicine department at the University of Alberta, encouraged patients who are unsure where to seek care to call a telehealth hotline, which can be done in several provinces by calling 811. The hotlines are often staffed by nurses who can provide health advice and connect patients to other services.
Some patients also have access to urgent care centres, which are intended to provide same-day care in urgent, but non-life threatening, situations.
And then there are the “lucky ones”, Sevcik said, who have ready access to a primary care provider.
Canada ranked second last when it came to timely doctors appointments among an 11-country survey including parts of Europe, the U.S. and Australia. About 41 per cent of Canadians said they could book a same-day or next-day appointment with a doctor or nurse, according to a 2020 Commonwealth Fund survey. Only Sweden ranked lower at 38 per cent, while the Netherlands and Germany led the list.
In Nova Scotia, where around 100,000 people are waiting to get a family doctor, Munroe said she has interacted with patients who sat in emergency rooms for 18 hours with a minor ailment or chronic condition because it would take six weeks to see their family doctor.
“There is absolutely no way” to address the issues in emergency departments, Munroe said, “unless we can improve access for patients to all sorts of care.”
What about virtual care options?
The pandemic has seen a surge in interest for virtual care options.
A group of Toronto hospitals, led by the University Health Network, teamed up in December 2020 to launch a virtual emergency department service for Ontario adults with non-life-threatening injuries, such as rashes or sprains.
It’s the same emergency physician a patient would otherwise see at the hospital, except it’s over video call or by telephone. The virtual call works much the same as a regular ER visit: the doctor can send prescriptions to the patient’s pharmacy, make an appointment with a specialist and, if needed, direct them to an in-person ER.
The virtual platform helps increase emergency care access, including to immunocompromised patients who seek to avoid crowded ERs, Chartier said.
And while Chartier said it’s a system worth expanding, he said it should be integrated with primary care providers to ensure patient care extends beyond the virtual ER.
Telus, Tia Health and Rocket Doctor are among the growing list of virtual care platforms to offer free doctors appointments for those covered by public insurance in a number of provinces, including British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta.
But while virtual platforms have been touted by some as a helpful stopgap for primary care backlogs and access issues, family doctors have also criticized them as a poor surrogate for consistent, long-term family doctor relationships.
When should patients absolutely seek emergency care?
Chartier said there are a number of obvious reasons to visit the ER, such as broken bones or uncontrollable bleeding. But generally, patients should consider emergency care when symptoms turn severe – whether it’s severe shortness or breath, severe dehydration or an excruciatingly severe headache.
He said patients should also be aware of any serious change in ability to speak or move, as well as acute changes to their levels of awareness.
But all three doctors stressed it was important not to judge patients who arrived in emergency rooms with seemingly non-urgent conditions.
“We are the safety net for a number of people: those who are unable to access care, those who don’t have any insurance, those who are vulnerable and marginalized, those with substance use and mental health disorders who are otherwise not followed by teams or may be unable to access them for a number of reasons,” Chartier said.
“We are proud to serve this role. These are patients we know are underserved in other ways. And we will always welcome them with open arms, because this is what we do.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2022.
Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press
Every 22 minutes, a woman in Canada dies of a heart attack.
But the majority don’t have to, experts say, warning that more women will die unnecessarily if the medical community doesn’t tailor care to their needs.
“We have one of the best health-care systems in the world, and we’re not serving women,” said Dr. Paula Harvey, a cardiologist and head of the department of medicine at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “We have to do better.”
Heart disease is a top killer of women in Canada, and the push to change that is more urgent than ever. Harvey says more younger women are presenting with classic high risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
“There’s this trend to cardiovascular risk factors starting to be a problem at an earlier age, and I find that disturbing,” said Harvey. “I never used to see a woman in her 40s with high blood pressure. I’m starting to see that, and that’s going to mean that we’ll have more premature heart disease.”
Some studies have already found the heart attack rate among women aged 35-54 has gone up.
Lifestyle factors play a role in the trend, but the threat itself is broader — the majority of Canadian women have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Women with diabetes and those who come from certain racial or ethnic backgrounds are at higher risk, but fluctuating hormones can wreak havoc with any woman’s heart health, especially as they enter menopause and levels of the heart-protecting hormone, estrogen, start to drop.
That transition starts when women are in their 40s and can catch many off guard, Harvey said.
“I do think that a lot of that comes from the fact that women are still not being educated, they’re not being counselled, they don’t understand the impact of our changing biology with age that puts them at cardiovascular risk.”
According to the Canadian Women’s Heart Health Centre, at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, 24,000 Canadian women die of heart disease every year. That’s nearly five times more deaths than from breast cancer.
Yet when it comes to heart health, experts say it’s still largely a man’s world: Women remain underdiagnosed, undertreated and unaware.
“It is a glass ceiling. It’s a glass ceiling for awareness, it’s a glass ceiling for research and for how we provide care,” said Karin Humphries, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia whose has researched gender and sex differences in the diagnosis, treatment and outcomes of patients with cardiovascular disease.
The basic medical model is still male-dominated and contributes to a general lack of awareness among women and health-care providers, Humphries said. And while awareness is growing, it’s not growing fast enough, she said.
“Everything in our culture emphasizes that cardiovascular disease is a man’s disease. I mean, think of Hollywood. Every time you see a heart attack, it’s on the male, right? You’re not watching a woman in a Hollywood movie having a heart attack.”
Part of the problem is that women’s symptoms can be different than those of men and can be attributed by both doctors and women themselves to stress and busy lives. For example, months before a heart attack, women may experience unusual fatigue, trouble sleeping, indigestion and anxiety.
Even during a heart attack, the symptoms can be subtle. Women are more likely to have chest discomfort, shortness of breath and even neck, jaw or back pain.
“I was still, you know, two months after my event, still reeling from that shock,” said Risa Mallory, who had a heart attack four years ago at age 61.
Mallory had been experiencing discomfort in her chest for several days, she said, but it came and went and didn’t seem so bad — until it suddenly was.
“On the fourth day, I experienced chest pain. It had changed. It was much more severe. I was feeling nauseous and I had this sense of fight or flight,” she recalled. “I remember sitting in the car, rocking, and saying, ‘We gotta go, we gotta go, we gotta go.'”
Mallory ended up in the emergency room and got help in time. But it was a close call. Heart disease runs in her family, she was aware of her own risk, but she still almost missed the warning signs.
That’s something that happens often, according to a 2018 Heart and Stroke Foundation report. The report found that early signs of a heart attack were missed in 78 per cent of women.
“What it tells us is that there are still a lot of inequalities and biases at the community level and the health-care provider level,” said Dr. Thais Coutinho, a cardiologist and chair of the Canadian Women’s Heart Health Centre at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.
Many women are in the dark, Coutinho said, in large part because much of the medical community is too.
Even now, the majority of heart disease research is conducted on men — despite important physiological differences, she said. Women’s hearts and arteries are smaller, and plaque builds in different ways. Standard diagnostic tests like angiograms and stress tests are often not sensitive enough to detect heart disease in women.
“That assumption still permeates through the cardiovascular research community that women are small men,” Coutinho said. “I do a lot of sex- and gender-based research, or women-specific cardiovascular research, and it’s amazing the differences that you find if you look. All of the gaps that we know exist from awareness, diagnosis, treatment, care, rehabilitation, education, everything — it starts with knowledge.
“So if we don’t even know what the differences are, we don’t know how to manage them.”
Samia Janna was 48 when she first went to her doctor in 2018 because of shortness of breath. The Ottawa-area woman was prescribed anti-anxiety medication and told to take it easy. But the symptoms persisted.
Janna went back to her doctor twice more, only to be given the same advice.
“At that time, I said, ‘No, I know it’s not anxiety,'” Janna says. “I know myself. There’s something wrong with my heart.”
Blood tests didn’t flag anything, but Janna insisted on an ultrasound to check her heart. It revealed Janna’s heart was enlarged and causing damage to her heart valves. She ended up having two open heart surgeries.
Janna says it was hard to let go of her anger about the fact that her concerns were initially dismissed. She joined a cardiac rehabilitation program and says it helped her regain her physical and emotional strength. “If it wasn’t for them. I would have been in a different place now, in a very dark place.”
Research finds women are up to 50 per cent less likely than men to attend cardiac rehab programs, often because they don’t get referred to one or face other barriers to follow-up care, including a tendency to minimize their own needs.
It helps explain why women who have a heart attack are more likely to die or experience a second heart attack compared to men.
Harvey says research is beginning to uncover the biological, medical, and social reasons for this — and the hope is that new knowledge will lead to advances in tailoring prevention and treatment to women’s needs.
But she points out, 80 per cent of heart attacks can be prevented and women can decrease major risk factors by managing high blood pressure, not smoking and sticking to a healthy weight. Harvey says women should also urge their doctors to check their hearts.
“We need to be empowered,” she says. “Knowledge is power. Advocacy is power. And do what you can so that you are aware of cardiovascular risk.”
And though prevention is key, Humphries says women should not hesitate to get help if they feel something is wrong.
“Call 911 and ask for help. Don’t worry about, you know, taking up time for health-care providers. They’re there to help you. And if you find out there’s nothing wrong with you, that’s wonderful. But absolutely do not hesitate and call 911.”
The study by University of British Columbia researchers says that while reduced social interaction during the March-May 2020 lockdown worked to reduce HIV transmission, that may not have “outweighed” the increase caused by reduced access to services.
The study, published in Lancet Regional Health, found that fewer people started HIV antiretroviral therapy or undertook viral load testing under lockdown, while visits to overdose prevention services and safe consumption sites also decreased.
The overall number of new HIV diagnoses in B.C. continues a decades-long decline. But Dr. Jeffrey Joy, lead author of the report published on Friday, said he found a “surprising” spike in transmission among some drug users during lockdown.
Joy said transmission rates for such people had previously been fairly stable for about a decade.
“That’s because there’s been really good penetration of treatment and prevention services into those populations,” he said in an interview.
B.C. was a global leader in epidemic monitoring, which means the results are likely applicable elsewhere, Joy said.
“We are uniquely positioned to find these things,” he said. “The reason that I thought it was important to do this study and get it out there is (because) it’s probably happening everywhere, but other places don’t monitor their HIV epidemic in the same way that we do.”
Rachel Miller, a co-author of the report, said health authorities need to consider innovative solutions so the measures “put in place to address one health crisis don’t inadvertently exacerbate another.”
“These services are the front-line defence in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Many of them faced disruptions, closures, capacity limits and other challenges,” Miller said in a news release.
“Maintaining access and engagement with HIV services is absolutely essential to preventing regression in epidemic control and unnecessary harm.”
The Health Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Researchers said the spike among “select groups” could be attributed to a combination of factors, including housing instability and diminished trust, increasing barriers for many people who normally receive HIV services.
British Columbia is set to become the first province in Canada to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs in January, after receiving a temporary federal exemption in May.
Joy said this decision, alongside measures like safe supply and safe needle exchanges, will make a difference preventing similar issues in the future.
“The take-home message here is, in times of crisis and public health emergency or other crises, we need to support those really vulnerable populations more, not less,” he said.
“Minimally, we need to give them continuity and the access to their services that they depend on. Otherwise, it just leads to problems that can have long, long-term consequences.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2022.
© 2022 The Canadian Press
September 23, 2022
2 min read
One author reports receiving speaker and consultant fees from Bayer and Janssen for work unrelated to this study. Walli-Attaei and the other authors report no relevant financial disclosures.
The magnitude of associations with major CVD for most risk factors are similar in women and men, despite sex differences in risk factor levels, according to an analysis of the PURE study.
In a comprehensive overview of the prevalence of metabolic, behavioral and psychosocial risk factors for CVD in women and men globally, researchers also found that diet was more strongly associated with CVD in women than in men. However, high concentrations of non-HDL and related lipids and symptoms of depression were more strongly associated with risk for CVD in men than in women. Patterns remained consistent across countries regardless of income level.
“Existing studies, mostly from high-income countries, have reported that hypertension, diabetes, and smoking are more strongly associated with cardiovascular disease in women than in men,” Marjan Walli-Attaei, PhD, a research fellow at the Population Health Research Institute of McMaster University and Hamilton Health Sciences, and colleagues wrote in The Lancet. “Such findings would imply that women would benefit to a greater extent in reducing cardiovascular disease risk from control of these risk factors than would men. However, the burden of cardiovascular disease is greatest in low-income and middle-income countries, for which prospective data on the association of risk factors with cardiovascular disease are sparse, with a paucity of analysis by sex.”
Walli-Attaei and colleagues analyzed data from 155,724 adults aged 35 to 70 years at baseline without a history of CVD enrolled in the PURE study, which included participants from 21 high-, middle- and low-income countries, and followed them for approximately 10 years (58% women; mean baseline age, 50 years). Researchers recorded information on participants’ metabolic, behavioral and psychosocial risk factors; all participants had at least one follow-up visit. The primary outcome was a composite of major CV events, defined as CV death, MI, stroke and HF. Researchers reported the prevalence of each risk factor in women and men, HRs and population-attributable fractions associated with major CVD.
As of the data cutoff of Sept. 13, 2021, researchers observed 4,280 major CVD events in women (age-standardized incidence rate, 5 events per 1,000 person-years) and 4,911 in men (age-standardized incidence rate, 8.2 per 1,000 person-years).
Compared with men, women presented with a more favorable CV risk profile, especially at younger ages. HRs for metabolic risk factors were similar in women and men, except for non-HDL, for which high non-HDL was associated with an HR for major CVD of 1.11 in women (95% CI, 1.01-1.21) and 1.28 in men (95% CI, 1.19-1.39; P for interaction = .0037), with a consistent pattern for higher risk among men than women with other lipid markers.
Researchers also observed that maintaining a diet with a PURE score of 4 or lower (score range, 0-8) was more strongly associated with major CVD in women than in men, with HRs of 1.17 (95% CI, 1.08-1.26) and 1.07 (95% CI, 0.99-1.15; P for interaction = .0065), respectively.
In contrast, symptoms of depression were more strongly associated with CVD in men than in women, with the HRs for symptoms of depression being higher in men than in women (P for interaction = .0002). “The HRs of other behavioral and psychosocial risk factors, as well as grip strength and household air pollution, were similar among women and men,” the researchers wrote.
The total population-attributable fractions associated with behavioral and psychosocial risk factors were greater in men than in women (15.7% vs. 8.4%) mostly due to the larger contribution of smoking to population-attributable fractions in men (10.7%) vs. women (1.3%).
“Our results emphasize the importance of a similar strategy for the prevention of cardiovascular disease in both sexes,” the researchers wrote. “However, the increased risk of cardiovascular disease in men might be substantially attenuated with better reductions in tobacco use and lipid concentrations.”
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