COLUMN: After years of work, Abbotsford’s hospital still plagued with same old issues

More people spending days on end in ER, more hospital deaths reported

I’m tired of writing about the troubles of Abbotsford Regional Hospital (ARH).

I don’t write that like one might fake-humbly say, “I don’t deserve this award.”

I’m legitimately tired of the story, and I sincerely believe most people involved are trying to address the issues at ARH. The media folks I deal with are unfailingly gracious, doctors acknowledge the structural issues, and even the health minister isn’t blind to the various challenges at Abbotsford’s hospital.

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And yet, there I was, wrapping up my last day before heading for Christmas, writing a story about a woman stuck in Abbotsford’s ER for a week. Those stories are common. Most aren’t even news anymore; they’re just the way things work at ARH.

The woman’s story stood out because: a) she had pneumonia and was stuck right next to the large sliding doors, and b) her health issues were dire and chronic.

Also, there was the depressing fact that – despite all the notoriety and legitimate work to address ARH’s problems – things have gotten worse in many regards since I started writing about the hospital.

Two weeks ago, I reported that ARH’s mortality rate was the highest for any large facility in B.C. I had been monitoring that number for years, and it had always been high (though it had receded recently). But its increase last year was so dramatic that it made clear that the elevated rate wasn’t an anomaly: More people die at ARH than you’d expect to at your average hospital. And they do so Every. Single. Year.

I’ve also been monitoring for years how long people spend in the ER, and it also keeps getting worse.

Five years ago, one in 10 spent 52 hours in the ER. Three years ago, one in 10 spent 68 hours in the ER. Last year, unlucky patients spent 72 hours.

(This has nothing to do with people going to the ER when they don’t need to. Those people never get admitted, so they never tie up the over-booked acute-care beds that patients in the ER end up waiting for.)

These stories come up in the winter, because that’s when the hospital is busiest. And so we hear from hospitals warning people that hospitals are busy and crowded. But it prompts the question: Why don’t health officials, who know that every winter is busier, have the resources or foresight – or whatever else they need – to prepare for heavy demand for hospital beds? Why do people get stuck for unhealthy lengths of time in the ER every winter? And how many people end up dying?

Fraser Health has said for years that they want to treat more people in the community, and that by doing so, they’ll free up hospital beds. That’s a holistic and cost-effective strategy. It’s surely part of the puzzle. It has also failed to work so far.

Five years ago, Fraser Health said it had a plan to build hundreds of residential care beds on the site of the old MSA Hospital. That property, I hear, is tied up in negotiations of some sort between Fraser Health and local First Nations. So patients continue to suffer.

What does Adrian Dix, the minister of health, have to say about all this? I asked for an interview when I discovered the sky-high mortality rate at the Fraser Valley’s largest hospital. I never heard from him – an increasingly frequent occasion by ministers of this government when they have something negative to answer for.

Yes, ARH’s ER is getting expanded. But while that will make it easier to warehouse patients, it won’t leave ARH with enough acute-care beds for all the sick and injured people who turn up to ARH every day. It won’t prevent dozens of unfortunate souls from spending days on end in the ER next winter, or the winter after that.

The NDP government isn’t only to blame – the Liberals failed to lay a foundation for adequate care – but so far there has been no indication that it intends to do anything to resolve the sub-standard medical care being experienced every day by men and women in the Fraser Valley.

Tyler Olsen is a reporter with The Abbotsford News

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