Shortage of specialists cause surgery cancellations in Abbotsford

A shortage of anesthesiologists is causing surgery cancellations in the Fraser Health region. - File Photo
A shortage of anesthesiologists is causing surgery cancellations in the Fraser Health region.
— image credit: File Photo

Jeff NAGEL and Kevin MILLS

Black Press

Anesthesiologists are warning a shortage of doctors in their specialty is causing surgery cancellations in the Fraser Health region.

At Abbotsford Regional Hospital, 50 days worth of surgeries have been lost, from Jan. 1 to now, according to Dr. James Helliwell, president of the B.C. Anaesthesiologists’ Society.

He said it’s also a growing problem at Surrey Memorial, Royal Columbian and Eagle Ridge hospitals.

“We’re not talking about just one or two closures but hundreds of closures,” he said. “Patients are not getting surgery in a timely fashion and the wait list is growing.”

Of the 50 days lost locally, Helliwell said it was  five in January, 14 in February and 31 in March.

“The numbers are lower in January because anesthesiologists were working 21 to 22 days in a row.”

But as they began to “burn out” the days lost steadily increased.

“We are estimating 50 days lost in April,” he said.

At Surrey Memorial Hospital, operating room slates have been cancelled a total of 283 times in the past year. In the last three months, 170 operating room days have been lost across Fraser Health – equivalent to 1,000 cancelled surgeries so far this year.

While anesthesiologists in the Fraser Health region move from hospital to hospital, Helliwell said Abbotsford has seven on staff.

“You need four of five more.”

Anesthesiology is one of the only specialties where a shortage exists in the Lower Mainland, despite repeated recruitment drives extending across Canada and overseas.

Most of Fraser Health has now been declared an underserviced area, Helliwell said, and foreign-trained anaesthesiologists whose certification is not recognized in Canada are now being hired as a result.

“We’ve been looking all over the world and we still can’t get enough people to come here,” he said.

Helliwell said the situation is even more dire outside the Lower Mainland, noting half the operating rooms in Vernon are closed at any given time because of the shortage of anesthesiologists.

“We need to sit down with government and find ways to make the work-life balance better,” he said, adding anesthesiologists work upwards of 70 hours a week in Abbotsford and Surrey.

That’s prompting more anaesthesiologists here to leave the province, he said, and for older doctors in the field to retire sooner than planned.

He also proposes system reforms like hiring “physician extenders” – lower-cost aides who would support anaesthesiologists.

Helliwell said that’s increased productivity dramatically and reduced net costs at some hospitals in Quebec and Ontario.

“Abbotsford has a great facility and a beautiful community, you should be able to attract new people ... We are on the edge of a precipice. People look at the working conditions and don’t want to come here and people here, don’t want to stay.”

Fraser Health spokesman Roy Thorpe-Dorward said the shortage of anaesthesiologists is an ongoing challenge.

He could not confirm the number of OR slates and surgeries cancelled as a result.

“We are actively recruiting for current and future needs,” he said, adding the health authority remains optimistic it will be seen as an appealing place to work, particularly as hospital expansions proceed.

Fourteen anaesthesiologists have been hired since 2008 and just over 100 are now working across the region.

Thorpe-Dorward said in Abbotsford, in 2011, only six surgeries have been cancelled because of a lack of available anesthesiologists and 11 more due to illness. However he acknowledged that stats are not kept regarding home many surgeries were never booked because of a lack of physicians.

According to the health ministry, the average full-time anesthesiologist now bills $340,000 a year and sees 10 per cent fewer patients than a decade ago.

And they increasingly work part-time rather than full-time, averaging 153 days worked a year.

The anaesthesiologists spoke out after Premier Christy Clark and health minister Mike de Jong on Monday staged a high-profile official launch at the site of the Surrey Memorial expansion.

The $512-million project will add an eight-storey critical care tower and new emergency department five times the size of the current one.

Nearing completion just to the northeast in Surrey is the $237-million Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre, which adds several operating rooms for day surgery.

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