01/20/2012 04:59 EST | Updated 03/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Saskatchewan hospitals swell with patients; Ottawa announces money for research

REGINA - While hospitals in Saskatchewan's biggest cities were filled to capacity on Friday, Ottawa coughed up money for health research across the country.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said $35.5 million will be spent to study chronic disease prevention and management, and to improve access to care for vulnerable people, such as children, seniors, the poor and aboriginals.

"This research is an investment that we believe will help provinces and territories reduce costs, and deliver better health care from coast to coast to coast," said Aglukkaq.

She made the announcement in Saskatoon, where the city's three hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients.

Deb Gudmundson, executive director of acute care for the Saskatoon Health Region, said there were patients in hallways for the first couple of weeks in January.

It's not the first time patients have been put there, but it doesn't usually last as long and has been "very taxing," said Gudmundson.

"Usually these cycles, our observation is that they come in...surges where they'll last...a few days to a week and then will dissipate. But this last cycle started heading into New Year's weekend and really didn't dissipate until Tuesday of this past week. That was an extended period of time."

The region is still "very, very tight in patient beds."

Gudmundson said there could be several reasons for the surge: the growing population in Saskatoon, people seeking care who don't have a family doctor or seniors waiting in hospital for long-term care placement.

"We know this time it's not influenza," she said.

"We are entering what typically is peak influenza season and our numbers are still fairly low right now in Saskatoon Health Region."

It's a similar situation at the two hospitals in Regina.

Dr. Joy Dobson said the Regina General Hospital was at 113 per cent capacity and Pasqua Hospital was at 106 per cent. Patients were in emergency rooms waiting for beds.

That was an improvement from earlier in the month, when patients were in hallways and surgeries had to be cancelled. Pasqua Hospital hit 134 per cent capacity on Jan. 6.

"We believe our issues this time were largely related to problems in having patients flow through our system, so there were delays at steps along their care that caused the whole process to slow down and resulted in the backlog that eventually ended in our...being unable to manage," said Dobson, a spokeswoman for Regina Qu'Appelle Health Region.

Population growth in Regina is a consideration, but not a major factor in the overcrowding, Dobson said. There hasn't been an increase in volume in the emergency room.

The province said last September that Saskatchewan's population hit an all-time high of 1,057,884 people.

Regina hospitals have seen an increase in admission numbers in recent years. There were 2,112 admissions in December 2011, compared to 2,012 admissions in December 2010.

"I can guarantee that there will be some time in the future when we will see another surge in demand or problems in flow through our hospitals. What we are hoping is that the things we learn now will help prevent that or allow us to recover from it much more quickly," said Dobson.