TORONTO - Ontario is grappling with a serious shortage of hospital beds that's compromising patient care and the province has failed to plan for the demands hospitals may face in the future, says a new report obtained by The Canadian Press.

The document to be released Thursday by the Ontario Health Coalition, a public health advocacy group, comes in the wake of C. difficile outbreaks in six hospitals that have been connected to at least 24 deaths.

The group, which is trying to draw attention to the issue ahead of the fall election, calculates that Ontario's hospital bed occupancy rate stands at 97.8 per cent -- the highest among industrialized countries -- and is threatening patient safety across the province.

"It's only going to get worse," said Natalie Mehra, the group's executive director.

"We have an aging population and we have an increasing population. If we continue to cut hospital beds while the demand continues to increase for hospital beds, then hospital overcrowding will get worse and hospital occupancy rates will get even higher."

Health Minister Deb Matthews didn't dispute the coalition's figure, but insists the Liberals have done more for hospitals than the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats.

"Our (occupancy) number is actually a little bit less than that, but it's in that range," she said. "And that is today's reality."

The report found Ontario has the fewest beds per capita among all the provinces -- 2.5 beds per 1,000 residents -- and is significantly below the Canadian average.

Almost 30,000 hospital beds have been closed in Ontario over the last 30 years -- 18,500 since 1990, the report said. The number of psychiatric and rehabilitation beds have increased, but those gains were offset by cuts to acute care and complex continuing care beds.

"Ontario has a serious problem of hospital overcrowding, yielding further evidence that hospital bed cuts are not being offset by a shift in services to the community or other institutions," the report states.

"There is sufficient evidence to conclude that Ontario's hospital bed cuts have gone too far."

Overcrowding has resulted in cancelled surgeries, emergency department backlogs and patients languishing on stretchers in hallways in many hospitals, the group said. Some are also discharged too early, before they can access the care they need at home or in a nursing home.

Overcrowding has also been linked to outbreaks of hospital-acquired infections and was likely one of the factors in the recent Clostridium difficile outbreaks in Ontario, Mehra said.

"It varies by hospital, there are other factors too," she said. "But definitely, hospital overcrowding is related to increased hospital-acquired infections."

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who has promised to cut emergency wait times in half and eliminate the wait list for nursing homes and home care, agrees.

"The fact that the government has done next to nothing to deal with the overcrowding of our hospitals is a tragedy and that tragedy, I think, plays out in issues like C. difficile," she said.

"You can't have a clean hospital when you've got people packed in like sardines, you're trying to keep some patients in isolation and you don't have adequate staffing running the facility in the first place. It's a recipe for disaster."

But Matthews said that's not what she was told by a team of experts dispatched to investigate the outbreaks.

"I haven't seen anything from the experts that have gone in to indicate that's the problem," she said.

C. difficile exists in many hospitals around the world. The challenge is controlling it as much as possible, she said.

Matthews said she's proud of what her party has accomplished over the last eight years, which includes building 18 new hospitals and more single rooms to minimize infection, setting patient safety protocols and investing in programs to improve care.

But the Ontario Health Coalition report warns that the province isn't planning ahead and hasn't conducted a study to assess how many hospital beds should be planned for in more than 15 years.

The Local Health Integration Networks, the regional bodies that were set up by the governing Liberals to make local health-care decisions, aren't required to measure and plan to meet population needs for health-care services, it said.

Matthews said the networks do have a responsibility to understand what their local communities' needs will be, and the ministry is planning ahead to anticipate future growth.

But the Progressive Conservatives, who have promised to scrap the networks and create 5,000 new nursing home beds, say that's not what they're seeing.

"You shouldn't have the unexpected happen like that," said Tory health critic Christine Elliott. "You should be able to be more proactive in dealing with issues, rather than being in constant crisis mode."