12/10/2012 12:50 EST | Updated 02/09/2013 05:12 EST

Alberta Health Queue Jumping: Calgary ER Too Backlogged To Allow Preferential Treatment, Said Emergency Manager


EDMONTON - A manager of urgent care at a southern Alberta clinic says there were times when doctors would push to have family and favourites moved to the head of the line.

It was left to triage nurses to stand up to doctors and make sure the most injured patients were seen first, Don Christensen testified Monday at an inquiry into preferential access in the province's health care.

Christensen is a supervisor at Calgary's Sheldon Chumir Centre which treats acute but not life-threatening injuries such as broken bones.

He told inquiry head John Vertes that occasionally doctors from other clinics would visit with their sick or injured children in tow.

"They would bring them in and they would sort of present themselves to triage and just say, 'If you make me a chart, I'll just go back and I'll talk to whoever's working.'

"The triage nurse was very clear: 'No, if you want your children to be seen here you'll follow due process.'"

Christensen said there were other problems with a physician who worked at the clinic but also worked at a private clinic that provided "Cadillac medicine" to select patients.

Those patients were guaranteed around-the-clock access to a doctor, who one day notified the triage nurse at the Chumir Centre that a couple of his private care patients were in the waiting room.

"He told (the front desk) just to send the patients back to him. Triage blocked that, so the preferential access did not happen, even though the physician had requested it."

That doctor has since left the clinic for unrelated reasons, Christensen said.

Vertes has been hearing testimony for over a week at a $10-million inquiry called by Premier Alison Redford. The hearing stemmed from a memo circulated in 2009 by Stephen Duckett, who was then the chief executive officer of Alberta Health Services.

The memo referred to concerns that VIPs or politicians were getting preferential care or jumping the health-care queue for non-medical reasons.

Kathy Taylor, who ran the emergency ward at Calgary's Peter Lougheed Hospital, said she saw the memo but pushed it to the bottom of her priority list.

Taylor told the inquiry that in 2009 there were much bigger problems with overcrowding in emergency wards and staff no longer willing to put up with the stress.

"Preferential treatment was so far from our world," said Taylor.

"We were struggling. We were having nurses who wouldn't work anymore in emergency. We had no staff. Physicians didn't want to work.

"It (queue-jumping) was something I wasn't seeing because I was trying to get in (to treatment) the person that wasn't breathing."

The Health Quality Council, in a report issued earlier this year, said the system was struggling at that time. Patients waited long hours in emergency rooms in part because acute care beds were being taken by patients who had nowhere else to go.

Taylor said there was the occasional patient who was pushed to the head of the line — such as an international traveller who had become ill on a plane and needed to get checked out quickly before catching another flight.

"(But) for someone to come in and say, 'I'm so and so and I want to be seen right now' — that we never see. And a triage nurse wouldn't be affected by that."

Taylor said a prominent Alberta politician — whom she didn't name — was in her emergency ward earlier this year and waited in line just like everyone else.

She said that in her five years in emergency at the Peter Lougheed, she never saw favouritism push a patient to the head of the line.

There were a lot of people complaining about long waits in 2009, she acknowledged, but she added those concerns have tapered off.

"In the last two years I haven't even had those complaints about wait times."

The inquiry continues Tuesday with testimony from former Alberta health minister Ron Liepert and former health executive Lynn Redford, who is the premier's sister.

The Opposition Wildrose party had urged Lynn Redford be called as a witness after Liepert once told the legislature that she was a go-to person in Calgary for those who needed help navigating the health system.

The Wildrose says there is enough evidence for Vertes to see if that help included helping prominent people jump the queue.

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