Health minister’s hospital-circuit ‘vacation’ signals spending spree

Written By Rob Shaw

“It’s a challenge [in] … rural smaller communities in B.C., but that’s a real focus of the province.”

––Adrian Dix

Politicians have a reputation for taking the summer off, but Health Minister Adrian Dix says he’ll be spending his vacation in an unusual way: Travelling across the province visiting its many beleaguered, understaffed, overstressed hospitals.

Dix made the commitment in Surrey this week while unveiling a 30-point plan to respond to weeks of intense criticism from doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers that the province’s busiest hospital, Surrey Memorial, is so overwhelmed it is no longer safe for patients.

“Other hospitals throughout the province, of course, are facing similar crises, with a growing population and staffing challenges,” said Dix, at the announcement.

“That’s why I’m going to be meeting with hospitals this summer across the province to find solutions in their workplaces that work for them, and they may include some of the actions we’re taking today at Surrey Memorial Hospital.”

If that’s true, B.C. is on the verge of a major spending blitz in healthcare.

Surrey Memorial may be easier to fix than rural hospitals

What Dix unveiled in Surrey will cost tens of millions of dollars: Expanding the hospital, paying hospitalists more money, adding new equipment, boosting new services and hours, and recruiting more physicians, nurses and internationally-trained healthcare staff — all in a matter of 18 months.

Opposition BC United leader Kevin Falcon scoffed at the announcement.

“They are in their sixth year in government and only now they’ve decided that this is a crisis, because the doctors have been speaking in one voice?” he said in his own press conference outside Surrey Memorial, after promising to build a new patient tower.

“We have to treat it like a crisis.”

Kevin Falcon

“We can’t incrementalize ourselves out of a crisis, we have to treat it like a crisis.”

Despite all of that, Surrey may end up being one of Dix’s easier fixes when compared to the situation the minister will find in rural and remote hospitals in the province’s interior and north.

‘There’s a lot of anger and frustration’

“There’s going to be a lot of frustration,” said Jereme Bennett, a 42-year-old palliative care nurse from 

Prince George who works both in the hospital and throughout the region.

“There’s a lot of anger and frustration amongst nurses, for example, about the way the hospital has been staffed and the situation has been handled, the utter lack of communication from management to nurses, and the lack of involvement by nurses into any type of decisions made. So he will hear that.”

Nurses rallied two weeks ago outside of the largest hospital in the north, the University Hospital of Northern BC in Prince George, warning it was at its breaking point due to overcrowding and understaffing leading to long waits and patient beds in hallways.

“There are lots of challenges throughout the system.”

Adrian Dix

In Kamloops, Royal Inland Hospital regularly runs overcapacity, often surging beyond its 258 beds to more than 300 patients.

“I agree it’s a challenge, often in rural BC, rural smaller communities in BC, but that’s a real focus of the province,” said Dix.

“If you look at the measures in our health human resources plan, they’re hugely focused on supporting rural communities, which have very different but significant health care issues for communities.”

Dix cited the tripling of foreign-trained doctors working on the ground as part of their B.C. licensing through the Practice Ready Assessment Program, which often benefits smaller hospitals in rural communities.

“Communities such as Dawson Creek, Prince George, Fort St James, Terrace, Quesnel, in the Northern Health Authority, have seen significant capital investments, new hospitals, net new beds, and so I’m going to continue to do that,” said Dix.

Northern hospital has long wait times and no back ups

The concerns of smaller hospitals in BC’s interior and north have been well-documented in recent months, leading to curtailments of hours and diversions to other facilities that can sometimes result in multi-hour trips for patients.

In the north, for example, UHNBC has no backup hospital of similar size from which to draw staff in a shortage.

“We are kind of like an Island in Northern Health, in that we have one big facility and that’s about it and the only other thing we can do is send our patients down south and that’s usually dependent on the hospitals down south having room,” said Bennett.

“We are kind of like an Island in Northern Health.”

Jereme Bennett

“Our cardiac patients wait up here five, 10, 15 days to get a procedure, where if they were at Royal Columbian, or Surrey, they’d get their procedure more quickly.”

Although recruitment and retention is a problem in rural communities, the province could help by hiring more unit clerks to process orders and answer phones, as well as more porters to help transport people into and around the hospital so that it doesn’t take up the limited time of nurses, said Bennett.

Dix’s announcement in Surrey came after months of stonewalling by the Fraser Health Authority’s executives and board who, at times, attempted to discourage physicians and others from speaking publicly about conditions.

That difficult relationship between workers and their health authority clearly extends to other health authorities as well, where similar complaints about a lack of trust and listening are rampant.

“What I’d hope is the minister just shows up and doesn’t give a week’s notice,” said Bennett.

“The announced visits, all of a sudden (health authority managers) will approve extra nurses to come in if they can find them, patients will get discharged, it’s amazing what happens when they know a high level official is coming versus the day-to-day.”

Minister ready for feedback

Dix spent four days at Surrey Memorial, touring the facilities, speaking to staff and holding meetings with front-line staff and their union representatives. The result was not only a plan to address issues, but also a “summary of issues raised by health-care workers” backgrounder produced by the Ministry of Health as part of the announcement.

That effort to make people heard and then summarize it for the public could make for interesting results in the interior and north.

Dix said he’s ready to hear it.

“What I’d hope is the minister just shows up and doesn’t give a week’s notice.”

Jereme Bennett

“On the staffing side, we have a health-human resources plan and we need to engage and make sure it’s working in communities and addressing their issues in communities,” Dix said.

“There are lots of challenges throughout the system. I think it would be differently felt (depending on location). 

“I talked to someone at the Stuart Lake Hospital in Fort St James earlier today and talking about some of their issues and how team-based care has responded to those issues in that community. They might be a little different there than they are in Surrey, but that’s why you have to go and see people.”