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Essential health services not disrupted by SARS outbreak


Preliminary data shows that the most essential health services were least affected by health system restrictions imposed during the 2003 SARS outbreak in Ontario.

Researchers from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) examined monthly trends in the use of various aspects of the Ontario healthcare system during the SARS outbreak (April and May 2003) within and outside the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). These health system areas included inpatient and outpatient hospitalizations, diagnostic testing, physician and emergency department (ED) visits, use of prescription medications, intensive care bed availability, and cardiac care. A comparison was made to health system use in April and May of 2002.

The results showed that the healthcare restrictions imposed by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care (MOHLTC) for all GTA acute-care hospitals in late March 2003 (i.e. reduced ambulatory and inpatient medical and surgical activity to urgent cases only, severe restrictions on visitors, expanded respiratory isolation (negative pressure) rooms, and the mandated use of protective garments in high-risk areas) had the greatest impact on the use of elective services and a much lesser effect on essential services. Not surprisingly, there was a much greater impact on service use within the GTA than outside it. The impact was also larger in April 2003 than in May 2003.

“Our report shows that the restrictions placed on hospitals during the 2003 SARS outbreak did what they were supposed to do,” said study co-author and ICES scientist, Dr. Michael Schull. “Utilization of hospitals fell dramatically, but much more so for elective services, while essential health services were largely maintained. This freed up health system resources to be used to tackle SARS.

“However, the question that still needs to be answered is whether the decrease in the use of the healthcare system during SARS had any negative effects on population health, and this is the focus of upcoming research at ICES funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR),” added Dr. Schull.

ICES is an independent, non-profit organization that uses population-based health information to produce knowledge on a broad range of healthcare issues. Our unbiased evidence provides measures of health system performance, a clearer understanding of the shifting healthcare needs of Ontarians, and a stimulus for discussion of practical solutions to optimize scarce resources. ICES knowledge is highly regarded in Canada and abroad, and is widely used by government, hospitals, planners and practitioners to make decisions about care delivery and to develop policy.


  • Julie Argles
  • Media Relations Officer, ICES
  • (416) 480-4055 ext. 3602 or cell (416) 432-8143


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