A lot of myths exist about Canada’s health-care system. Since 2000, an annual contest put on by the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation has served to dispel them.

One of those myths is that emergency room overcrowding is caused by non-urgent cases. Not so, says André Maddison, a co-winner of the 2009 contest.

“If we somehow divert non-urgent patients from the ER, it’s not going to solve ER overcrowding,” he says. “We’re not going to have 15-minute wait times.”

ER overcrowding is caused by a larger set of issues, such as a lack of available beds in ERs and a lack of alternative care settings, says Maddison, who is a second-year master’s in community health and epidemiology student at Dalhousie University in Halifax. The 25-year-old received a $1,500 prize for the contest and a paid trip to Calgary where he was presented with the prize.

“When you look at the proportion of patients who are there for non-urgent reasons, it is actually quite high,” he says, pegging the number at 20 to 25 per cent of patients. “There are a significant number of patients there with non-life threatening issues. But they don’t take a lot of physician time or diagnostic services or nurse time. They are rarely admitted.”

Non-urgent patients are admitted about 4 to 5 per cent of the time, he says.

Maddison got involved with the contest because of a course he took during his first year of master’s studies. An assignment for the class was to work on busting a health-care myth.

He got the idea for the assignment after chatting with an ER physician.

“I kind of went into it with the idea that these people who don’t have family physicians are not the main cause of the overcrowding,” he says. “The more I went into it, the more I realized, well, they do have a little effect, but it’s such a complex issue that you really can’t pinpoint blame on a certain group and solving one problem is not going to solve the entire issue.”

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