Killer nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer murder spree sparked jump in care complaints

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Thrust under a harsh spotlight by Elizabeth Wettlaufer’s murder spree at two Southwestern Ontario nursing homes, Ontario’s long-term care system has seen complaints spike in the year since the killer nurse’s crimes came to light.

Last October, the same month Wettlaufer was charged with eight counts of first-degree murder for killing residents of nursing homes in Woodstock and London over a seven-year period, the number of complaints about long-term care shot through the roof — jumping nearly 50 per cent from the month before, and up by 112 per cent from the same month the year before.

When Wettlaufer grabbed headlines again in January, slapped with four counts of attempted murder and two of aggravated assault, also involving vulnerable people in her care, the number of complaints to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care rose again, up 17 per cent from the month before.

And in June, when the worst killer in Canadian medical history pleaded guilty to all charges and was sent to prison for life, with no chance of parole for 25 years, dozens more complaints poured in than in the previous month, rising by 11 per cent.

The complaints cover everything from conditions in Ontario’s long-term care system, which numbers about 630 homes and nearly 80,000 residents, to staff conduct and allegations of mistreatment of residents.

But the spikes in complaints surrounding key events in the Wettlaufer case are just one part of what Queen’s Park critics say is an alarming trend — the steady increase in objections about care and conditions in Ontario’s vast long-term care system.

Two years ago, between October and December 2015, Ontario averaged 265 urgent and non-urgent complaints each month. Urgent complaints are the most serious, involving allegations such as abuse or neglect.

That complaint volume has since risen sharply, averaging 407 between June and August of this year.

Critics and senior care advocates say they’re not surprised — that the system is under-staffed and unresponsive to complaints, elements some want addressed in a government-promised public inquiry into Wettlaufer’s insulin murders at Caressant Care in Woodstock and Meadow Park in London.

What some also wonder is how the government will keep up with complaints at the huge end of the health care system, amid a rapidly aging population.

“I’m not surprised in the increase in complaints,” MPP Teresa Armstrong, the Ontario NDP critic for seniors’ affairs.

“The system is broken,” said the London-Fanshawe MPP. “People are telling us that it’s broken — they’re complaining, they’re going through the right channels to tell us that it’s broken, yet this government isn’t paying attention.”

Armstrong points to a 2015 report by Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk that found backlogged inspections of long-term care homes for complaints and so-called “critical incidents” — issues that must be reported immediately, ranging from neglect and abuse to improper care and unexpected deaths — had doubled over 15 months.

Two years earlier, the province was found violating its own nursing-home inspection law, to which it responded by hiring more inspectors.

With a growing tide of complaints, the problem is only going to get worse, said Progressive Conservative long-term care critic Bill Walker.

“It’s absolutely a cause for concern,” said the Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP.

“You want to see those numbers going down, certainly not increasing,” he said.

For Walker, the issue boils down to one thing; If the Liberal government had made significant improvements to the long-term care system, and managed it properly, complaints wouldn’t be going up like they are.

“It’s not like this is a phenomenon that just plunked down on our planet in the last year,” he said.

“We’ve known that this baby boom demographic is coming at us. You would expect the government to be confident and have plans in place to be proactive.”

Issues in the long-term care system pre-date the Wettlaufer case, but observers say the ex-nurse’s crimes have pushed them into the spotlight.

Wettlaufer, who killed eight people over seven years at the two homes, quickly landed a job at the London home where her final victim lived after being fired from the Woodstock home amid allegations of repeated medication-related errors. In all the cases, she administered deadly doses of insulin.

“Not only are more people paying attention to nursing home care, it’s indisputable that the acuity levels are going up in the homes too,” said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, an advocacy group devoted to protecting and improving public health care.

Mehra said nursing homes are struggling to handle patients with complex needs — the kind that would have filled chronic care hospital wards decades ago. The result are so many complaints, she says, inspectors are scrambling to keep up.

“There is no question that the inspection system is stretched,” she said.

“We’re told the inspectors cannot do all of the inspections that they need to do based on complaints. There’s just not enough of them and not enough resources to do it.”

The ministry assesses all public complaints. Those that involve violations of Ontario’s Long-Term Care Act are investigated further. Other complaints can be addressed without an investigation.

When investigations have occurred, the number of non-compliance infractions found decreased by 18 per cent in 2016 compared to previous years, wrote ministry spokesperson David Jensen in an email.

With the coming public inquiry into Wettlaufer, her crimes and the long-term care system in its early stages, seniors advocate Wanda Morris said the broader issues are harder to ignore.

Morris said it’s difficult to give one reason for the steady increase in long-term care home complaints, but said it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s a sign people finally speaking up, she said.

“In the past, what we’ve heard (is that) people are scared to come forward with a complaint because they’re worried about repercussions against their loved one in the centre,” she said.

“One positive thing we can take from the numbers is, hopefully, this is more people willing to come forward.”

Long-term care home complaints

October 2015 – 236

November 2015 – 292

December 2015 – 267

January 2016 – 238

February 2016 – 226

March 2016 – 302

April 2016 – 318

May 2016 – 327

June 2016 – 393

July 2016 – 317

August 2016 – 422

September 2016 – 337

October 2016 – 502

November 2016 – 364

December 2016 – 334

January 2017 – 394

February 2017 – 351

March 2017 – 393

April 2017 – 384

May 2017 – 417

June 2017 – 467

July 2017 – 416

August 2017 – 476

Source: Ministry of Health and Long-term Care


2007-2014: Elizabeth Wettlaufer murders eight elderly residents at two nursing homes in London and Woodstock

September 30, 2016: Wettlaufer resigns from College of Nurses of Ontario

October 6, 2016: Wettlaufer signs a peace bond with Woodstock police with 10 conditions

October 25, 2016: Wettlaufer is charged with eight counts of first degree murder in a Woodstock court

January 13, 2017: Wettlaufer is charged with four counts of attempted murder and two counts of aggravated assault

June 1, 2017: Wettlaufer pleads guilty to all charges

June 26, 2017: Former nurse sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 25 years; Public inquiry into Wettlaufer’s crimes and long-term care oversight announced

July 26, 2017: College of Nurses of Ontario officially bars Wettlaufer from profession

August 1, 2017: Justice Eileen Gillese appointed to lead the public inquiry

August 3, 2017: Preliminary timeline of public inquiry released 

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