On-call doctors face a new barrier to reaching patients in critical condition.
Physicians paged in emergencies are not allowed to use the temporary HOV lanes marked off for the Pan Am Games this summer, the Toronto Star confirmed Friday.
“Doctors and other healthcare providers are not currently exempted users on the HOV network,” said Ajay Woozageer, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation, in an email.
“However, as with all emergencies, were circumstances to arise — e.g. life or death urgency, etc. — that require access, the police can allow using their discretion.”
How that discretion would be applied is unclear.
“If they were driving along the QEW and they decided that they needed to speed, they run the risk of getting stopped and obviously they would have to explain their situation,” said Toronto Police Staff Sgt. Devin Kealey, who sits on the Pan Am planning committee.
“I’m sure in certain circumstances, as has happened in the past, (police) may even assist the nurse or doctor after pulling them over.”
Roughly 185 km of the temporary carpool lanes will run along the main arteries that rim the GTA and beyond during the Games. That means less road space for more drivers, as 250,000 visitors flood the city.
The interim high occupancy vehicle lanes include Highway 427, Highway 401, the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway, a 270-per-cent addition to the diamond-marked strips of asphalt that already stretch along Highway 404 and the QEW.
The HOV lanes will be open to athletes, media and Games-accredited vehicles. Emergency vehicles, public-transit buses, taxis, airport limos, electric cars and all vehicles with three or more occupants can also traverse the exclusive asphalt.
Doctors, nurses and other groups have requested access inside the elite white lines, Kealey said. “But we don’t have the ability to do a background check on every nurse and doctor to confirm they need it.”
He noted gas or other utilities companies might have equal claim to an exemption in an emergency.
In a worst-case scenario, doctors rushing to treat a stroke victim or heart-attack patient would be cut off from road space they could otherwise access, subjecting a patient to longer wait times as their physician idles in traffic.
“If exceptions were granted to a particular group of vehicles and/or people, it would become increasingly difficult to refuse other requests for exceptions,” said Health Ministry spokesperson Jag Dhamrait in an email sent to a doctor at St. Michael’s Hospital May 14 and obtained by the Star.
Dr. Mike Toth, president of the Ontario Medical Association, said he was “confident” doctors would be able to do their jobs despite the bottlenecks.
“Currently, situations arise where physicians need to reach a hospital or patient’s home quickly to respond to an emergency and physicians are fulfilling that responsibility even if met with an unexpected circumstance such as a road closure,” he said in an email Friday.
“Ontario’s doctors take seriously their responsibility to be able to respond quickly in order to meet their patients’ needs.”
A quarter-million visitors, 7,400 athletes and thousands more officials, coaches and dignitaries are expected to swarm the GTA during the Games.
Gillian Howard, a spokesperson for Toronto’s University Health Network, which encompasses major trauma centres like Toronto Western Hospital, said hospitals were “not concerned” about the slimmed-down roads.
“People on call are always aware of road conditions and traffic and that will be no different during the Games,” Howard said in an email. “The hospital’s emergency departments and services within the hospital are set up to work with patients who are critically ill at all times.”
The temporary HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane restrictions go into effect June 29 and end Aug. 18.
The Pan Am Games end July 26, with the Parapan Am Games commencing Aug. 7. From July 27 to Aug. 18, cars carrying two people or more can gain access.
HOV lanes attracted attention last week as the diamond-shaped markers that designate them began to peel off the pavement.
Monday morning commuters could see strips of white tape blowing around on Highway 427 and the QEW while pieces of the white diamonds — installed less than a month ago — were conspicuously absent.
“Replacement will be undertaken ASAP this week, weather permitting, at the contractor’s expense,” said Ajay Woozageer in an email to the Star.