03/20/2014 11:45 EDT | Updated 05/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Ontario health system discriminates against seniors: report

There’s a pattern of discrimination and ageism brewing in Ontario hospitals, and people are not getting the rehabilitative therapies and convalescent care they need, according to a new study released in Hamilton Thursday.

Pushed Out of Hospital, Abandoned at Home: After Twenty Years of Budget Cuts, Ontario’s Health System is Failing Patients was commissioned by the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions and recounts the experiences of hundreds of patients and their families from across Ontario who called a 1-800 patient hotline.

Their stories run the gamut from missed diagnoses to long wait times, painting a picture of a health care system that’s struggling to cope with inadequate resources, says Michael Hurley, the president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

“The impact of years of cuts has hurt one group particularly — seniors and the elderly,” Hurley told CBC Hamilton. “It’s shameful.”

Ontario has fewer beds and hospital staff today than it did in the 1990s, but our population has increased, and it’s older, the study says. As technology gets better, more people are seeking medical help for an increasing spectrum of treatments — meaning supply has fallen, while demand has grown.

'People are going to pay with their lives'

“I’ve seen and heard of stroke victims getting sent home from emergency. The people that have been misdiagnosed and sent home and died ... A man I worked with went in for heart pain; he was told he was fine and sent home, where he died,” reads one of the accounts in the study. Hurley says the participants can’t be named due to confidentiality agreements, but did say of the 600 calls the hotline tracked, 75 were from Hamilton.

“I told my husband, when these cuts happen, people are going to pay with their lives — and they have,” an account from the study reads.

“The healthcare system is failing the general public.”

The health ministry doesn’t agree with the report. “Ontario’s Action Plan for Health Care is committed to providing patients with the right care at the right time and in the right place,” reads a statement sent to CBC Hamilton by ministry spokesperson David Jensen.

“The government is committed to a strong, stable, publicly-funded hospital system that efficiently provides high-quality patient services, and will also continue to focus on care in the community and helping people stay at home longer.”

The ministry says hospital funding in Ontario has risen from $11.3 billion in 2004 to $17.3 billion in 2014 – a 53 per cent increase. But Hurley says the problem lies in the way the government allocates that funding, with too much cash being funneled to drugs and doctor salaries. “Money is to burn in some parts of the system,” Hurley said. “There is money in the system that could be reallocated.”

The province has made a conscious decision to focus on “care in the community so that there are more options available to help older people stay at home longer,” the ministry statement reads, attesting that care in the community is “more affordable than care in hospitals or long-term care homes,” which is something the report denounces as shortsighted and wrong.

Not enough providers for patients: report

The hospital union estimates that there are over 10,000 people wait-listed for home care in Ontario, and 32,000 people wait-listed for long-term care. “Meanwhile, hospital funding is being cut, forcing further bed closures,” the report reads.

Discharging hospital patients too early was also flagged as a widespread issue, as it increases their chance of readmission, Hurley says. A 2012 study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information found that when patients’ length of stay was more than a day below the expected length of stay for their particular illness, their risk of readmission increased 40 per cent.

Ontario has the shortest length of stay of any province in Canada at 6.4 days — more than a full day shorter than the national average of 7.7 days. According to Statistics Canada, Ontario has about four fewer health care workers per 1,000 people than the rest of Canada.

Between 1991 and 2011, the number of hospital staff in Ontario per 1,000 people declined by 20 per cent, the report reads.

These statistics, coupled with the firsthand accounts gathered by the study, point to a system that is in dire need of widespread changes so people don’t keep slipping through the cracks, Hurley says.

“What’s particularly tragic is a lot of these people who called led an otherwise healthy life,” he said.

“And we’re just trying to give these people a voice.”