June 14, 2024

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B.C. health minister warns high demand for emergency medical care may be ‘new normal’

B.C.’s health minister said the province’s emergency rooms are seeing unusually high levels of patient demand in a trend that may be a “new normal.”

Adrian Dix said the situation is concerning because the province is about to enter the respiratory illness season, and the anticipated summer lull for medical staff did not materialize.

Dix, speaking at Surrey Memorial Hospital Friday, said there are about 9,700 patients in emergency care across B.C., about 700 more than normal for this time of year.

He said July and August usually see those numbers dip below 9,000.

WATCH | Adrian Dix warns of busy hospitals as flu season begins: 

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said that July and August saw extraordinary and unprecedented levels of hospital patients across the province.

“So we’re doing more surgery than ever before, more primary care visits than ever before, more diagnostic procedures than ever before,” Dix said. “We have more people in hospitals than ever before, and we have more people working in the system than ever before. That demand is the new normal, and we have to work to address it.”

Dix met doctors at Surrey Memorial to give an update on the province’s 30 initiatives announced in June to address overcrowding in the Fraser Health region.

Four months ago, dozens of physicians working at the hospital’s ER released a letter, describing it as in “crisis” and that Fraser Health officials “repeatedly” asked them to keep details of the situation from the public.

Afterward, other doctors from Royal Columbian and Eagle Ridge came forward with similar stories: an acute staffing problem has pushed strained ERs over the edge, leaving doctors exhausted and patients getting sub-par, “undignified” care in cramped hallways.

A group of doctors and health workers affiliated with the advocacy group B.C. Health Care Matters said they plan to rally in front of Surrey City Hall Saturday to demand further action. Dix said he would be listening but cannot attend.

WATCH | Letter describes ‘crisis’ situation in Surrey ER:

ER doctors say B.C.’s busiest hospital is ‘unsafe’

In a scathing letter obtained by CBC News, emergency room doctors at Surrey Memorial Hospital describe a crisis situation, with patients suffering — and some even dying — because of overcrowding and staff shortages.

In a written statement, Fraser Health said Dix’s update included progress on several fronts to combat overcrowding, including filling more than 216 staff positions at Surrey Memorial since June.

The hospital is now posting another 64 positions. It has hired 39 foreign-educated nurses among 146 added throughout Fraser Health.

Other improvements include patient ambassadors to provide support, as well as doubling internal medicine bed capacity from 30 to 60.

Problem beyond hospital: Doctors of B.C.

Dix said the doctors he met Friday recognized the progress but wanted more — something he said the NDP government is committed to.

“Their approach was of course positive,” he said of the doctors’ response. “But they’re also dealing with what has been an extraordinary and unprecedented summer of activity in our health-care system, one that we expect to continue through respiratory illness season.”

Doctors of B.C. president Dr. Joshua Greggain welcomed Dix’s visit and attention to Surrey Memorial but said doctors at the facility and across B.C. are still feeling stretched.

“Our physicians still feel very much it is a very busy emergency room,” Greggain told CBC News. “The hospital is still very busy and so there’s still lots of work to do, and we are currently in the middle of the summer time and things like influenza and COVID are yet to rear their head this fall and winter.”

He said the province needs to improve access to primary care to prevent patients from going to hospital, and ensure staff are supported to provide patient care in Surrey and other communities.

“We need to be hiring more physicians, more nurse practitioners, more nurses … but we need to be sure that the ones who are working in the front lines in the emergency departments, the hospitals, the urgent care centres, the family physicians office are also not burning out,” said Greggain.

“It’s a matter of investment and resources, it’s also a matter of patient safety [and] It’s also a matter of physician and provider wellness and those are interconnected.”

WATCH | Patients stranded in hallways at peak of Surrey ER crisis: Dr. Urbain Ip

Senior physician at Surrey hospital speaks about conditions that are leaving staff ‘worried sick’

Dr. Urbain Ip, a leading emergency room physician at Surrey Memorial Hospital, said conditions in the department have broken down to the point where patients can be stranded in hallways for days at a time.

‘Generation’ of neglect at fault: Dix

Dix described the situation as a result of “a generation” of neglect for Fraser Health as the population of Surrey boomed. He criticized the Liberal governments from 2001-2017 for a number of missteps.

Those moves, Dix said, included selling land intended for a new Surrey hospital a decade ago.

“I think it’s fair to say that Surrey, more than any other community in British Columbia, suffered most from the neglect of the health-care system from 2001 to 2017,” Dix said. “These [changes] won’t instantly make things better, but they have a positive effect.”

Opposition B.C. United MLA Shirley Bond called Dix’s comments an attempt to deflect from a problem she said was created under the NDP’s watch.

Bond said her party — which changed its name from the B.C. Liberals this year — invested in facilities such as Surrey Memorial’s patient-care tower and the Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre.

“Minister Dix can continue to look in the rear-view mirror,” Bond said. “What he needs to do is accept responsibility for the fact that our health-care system in Surrey and across British Columbia is in crisis.”

One specific area that needs improvement, Bond said, is expedited credentialing for foreign-educated medical graduates.