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Delayed surgeries blamed on doctor shortage

A surgical team works in an OR at Surrey Memorial Hospital. The cancellation of some scheduled OR days is being blamed on a lack of anaesthesiologists there. - File
A surgical team works in an OR at Surrey Memorial Hospital. The cancellation of some scheduled OR days is being blamed on a lack of anaesthesiologists there.
— image credit: File

Anaesthesiologists are warning a shortage of doctors in their specialty is causing surgery cancellations in the Fraser Health region and could leave new operating rooms unused once a major expansion of Surrey Memorial Hospital is finished.

Operating room slates have been cancelled at SMH a total of 283 times in the past year due to a lack of anaesthesiologists, according to the B.C. Anaesthesiologists' Society.

In the last three months, they say 170 operating room days have been lost across Fraser Health – equivalent to 1,000 cancelled surgeries so far this year – with half the cancellations in Surrey.

Society president Dr. James Helliwell said it's also a growing problem at Royal Columbian, Eagle Ridge and Abbotsford Regional 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."

Anaesthesiology 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 anaethesiologists work upwards of 70 hours a week in Surrey and Abbotsford.

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.

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.

According to the health ministry, the average full-time anaesthesiologist 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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