UHN Emergency physician Dr. Erin O’Connor says during the pandemic “the stretch in the system came from people giving more and more of themselves, until they got to the point where they just couldn’t anymore.” (Photo: UHN)
The Omicron wave of the pandemic has subsided. Easing a strained hospital system. Leaving scars on some of its workforce.
“I saw my colleagues suffering. I saw their resilience wearing down. It was hard,” says Dr. Erin O’Connor, Deputy Medical Director of the University Health Network (UHN) Emergency Department and ED physician.
Two years of enduring the pandemic wrought a mounting fallout. Including burnout. Staff leaving. Backlogged surgeries. Patients waiting.
“We know patients are frustrated with the waits. They’re frustrated having to wait for specialist outpatient consults,” says Dr. O’Connor, “And we see more and more patients coming in to the ED with social issues, not having housing, not having jobs, not having food security.
“Some people with addictions problems, you know all of this has been rising exponentially.
“What I’d like the public to know is that we are all trying our best. That the workers in healthcare are not the barriers to access here.”
There’s another profound effect of the pandemic, for which Dr. O’Connor is actually thankful. Ripping the Band-Aid off the cracks in the healthcare system.
“What you’re really seeing is a system that has been honestly underfunded for years and is not right-sized for the population,” says Dr. O’Connor. “We are all incredibly strained right now.
“The stretch in the system came from people giving more and more of themselves, until they got to the point where they just couldn’t anymore.”
Maintaining an even keel and learning to cope have become pandemic requirements for Dr. O’Connor.
“I encourage our staff to try to take some time to themselves, refocus on things like your family, the things that make you happy, the things that actually bring you joy.
“Although to be honest, I think that some people are having great difficulty doing that.”
Dr. O’Connor appreciates the new and emerging treatments to help with COVID patient recovery. But she maintains vaccines remain the most effective way out of the pandemic.
“We need to remember that our best option is actually prevention. We’re not out of the woods yet,” she says. “I think what we really, really need is to be able to vaccinate. Have everyone who wants to be vaccinated, vaccinated.
“And for those of us with children under the age of five, we really need the vaccine for them. That’s a vulnerable population that needs protection.”
Dr. O’Connor is hopeful for one more effect resulting from the pandemic – a concerted effort to recast our vision of the Canadian healthcare system.
“I very much hope that we actually do have a reckoning,” she says. “In really thinking about the system as a whole and how we actually make things stronger, and look at how we actually make improvements.
“Because the status quo was flawed. It is fragile and we all need to be advocates and we all need to be arguing for system reform.”