A lead doctor who works with the Alberta Medical Association says he anticipates "potential catastrophic collapse of timely emergency care delivery" because of chronic overcrowding in hospitals across the province.

The warning came in the form of a September 30th letter, which was addressed to the premier, AHS officials and key MLAs.

The author, Dr. Paul Parks, is the head of the Section of Emergency Medicine (SEM). He says he and other members have "serious concerns regarding the state of emergency medical services in the province" because of the lack of space and resources.

"Due to severe access block, we are routinely failing to meet even the basic recommended times to assess and treat acutely ill patients arriving at our hospitals, and suspect the problem will only worsen as he winter illness season approaches," Dr. Parks wrote.

"Despite repeated pleas and communications with your Ministry and Alberta Health Services, access block and emergency department/system overcrowding continues to worsen."

The letter goes on to list dozens of examples where crowding is believed to have led to "substandard emergency care."

Events from 2010 include a patient with a C-spine fracture spending six hours on a spine board in a waiting room, a patient waiting seven hours for treatment after being identified as septic and a heart attack victim left unattended for two hours after arriving on site by ambulance.

Dozens of other examples from the past two years are listed, with the letter stating the incidents happened when anywhere from 50 to 80 per cent of beds were occupied by admitted in-patients.

David Eggen, who represents Friends of Medicare, says what's most concerning is that attached to the letter were other written documents from 2008, which warned of similar problems.

"It is appalling that the government and Alberta Health Services knew about the situation without doing anything for at least the last two years, probably even more," he said.

The province's health minister says changes are on the way, pointing to a strategy that was laid out last Wednesday to improve emergency room care.

Four initiatives that were announced to ease the crunch include the following:

  • Opening approximately 250 beds for acute care, transition, hospice, detox and continuing care

  • Implementing new discharge processes this fall

  • Increasing home-care funding

  • Expanding Health Link so patients can get real-time information on which Emergency Rooms have the shortest lineups

"Rather than focus on past examples, I'm more focused on what we can do today and go forward to provide," said Gene Zwozdesky.

"These things can't happen overnight but they are in the strategic plan. Now that we have the five-year funding plan in place... we are going to be announcing more on that funding plan and more specifically the action plan very soon."

With Files from Kevin Armstrong