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Our health care system promises that patients will receive the medical care they need, where they need it, and when they need it. Unfortunately, the real experiences of many patients in British Columbia are far different from what they deserve.
There is a critical and worsening shortage of anesthesiologists in BC that does not exist in any other province in Canada.
Our shortage of anesthesiologists has resulted in longer wait times, hundreds of millions of wasted taxpayer dollars, and a decline in the quality and safety of patient care.
The BC Government has also failed to:
- Make good on a promise from 2006 to implement a province-wide electronic perioperative record system.
- Train, hire, and retain enough Anesthesia Assistants.
These failures are making the situation even more critical. Below are some highlights about the problems BC is facing.
You’ve probably heard a story like Erin Molstad’s…
“When I was injured at the age of 25, I didn’t know how I would be able to endure the lifetime of pain that was the result. I was told that I could talk to an anesthesiologist about coming up with a plan for managing my chronic pain. Little did I know that would mean living in agony for two years before I even got an assessment.”
Anesthesiologists are specialist physicians who provide critical around-the-clock care to over 500,000 British Columbians each year. Women in labour receive pain relief and life-saving care, anesthetized patients safely undergo surgery, and chronic pain patients get the relief they desperately need. But these things can only happen if patients have timely access to an anesthesiologist.
Despite a decade of talk about reducing wait times for surgery, the opposite is the reality in BC.
Since 2001, the number of patients being forced to wait for surgery has increased 40%. In December 2010, there were 74,981 patients waiting for surgery in BC.
Even worse, the time that each of these patients waits for surgery has increased by 50% since 2001.
The sad truth is that taxpayer-funded operating rooms all across BC go unused because of the shortage of qualified anesthesiologists.
Meanwhile, patients suffering with chronic pain because of conditions like cancer often wait over one to two years for an appointment to see an anesthesiologist for specialized pain treatments.
The Supreme Court of Canada said it best in 2005:
“Access to a waiting list is not access to health care.”
You’ve probably heard a story like this before…
“I was told by my obstetrician that there was no guarantee I would have access to an anesthesiologist when I needed one most. When a complication in my labour made me start bleeding uncontrollably, I was so afraid I would lose my baby. I’m just so thankful an anesthesiologist was there to save both of our lives.”
The shortage of anesthesiologists means patients receive less quality care and have their safety put at risk more often.
Pregnant Women at Risk
BC’s high-risk Obstetrical Units are currently functioning without the Anesthesiologist resources recommended by Health Canada, by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, or by BC’s own Perinatal Health Program.
In the absence of an all-day and all-night, year-round team of anesthesiologists dedicated to these patients, mothers and their babies have to wait for an anesthesiologist to become available, even when their situation is life threatening.
Two years ago, the BC Government committed to meet the needs of these patients for qualified anesthesiologists. Despite attempts to recruit anesthesiologists from all over Canada, the Royal Columbian, Surrey Memorial, and Victoria General hospitals continue to operate without the anesthesiologists needed to provide the standard of care promised by our Government.
Lower Government Standards Means Recruiting Less Qualified Physicians
While the supply of anesthesiologists in every other province has improved over the last decade, BC’s problems are only getting worse. Many OR’s are closed in BC because of the lack of anesthesiologists. The shortage would be even more obvious if the Government had not lowered the credentials needed to practice here.
Since 2001, the BC Government has sponsored the hiring of 54 anesthesiologists who have not met Canadian qualification standards. The Ministry of Health Services allowed this by declaring the following communities “under-serviced”:
- Campbell River
- Dawson Creek
- Maple Ridge
- Port Alberni
- Prince George
The Government is lowering standards instead of keeping its legal promise (from the BC Medicare Protection Act) to provide:
“Reasonable access, throughout British Columbia, to quality medical care for residents of British Columbia.”
You’ve probably heard a story before like Mario M.’s…
“I was admitted to Royal Columbian Hospital in severe pain and needed emergency surgery. Critical information about my last anesthetic at a different hospital was not available, and so it was unsafe to go ahead with my procedure. It took days to get the information faxed from the other hospital, and I suffered for a week in pain waiting for my ‘emergency’ surgery.”
Every year, BC taxpayers invest over $2 Billion to run operating rooms all over the province, in both urban and rural areas. Too much of this money is wasted!
Without the availability of anesthesiologists and the resources they need to provide safe care to their patients, OR’s come to a standstill, costing money without delivering care.
In the last five years alone, Government data shows that OR inefficiencies associated with the difficult recruitment and retention of anesthesiologists has reduced OR productivity by 5.3%. This costs taxpayers over $100 million annually.
BC’s shortage of anesthesiologists has also resulted in an increasing number of funded but closed OR’s. Each closed OR costs taxpayers between $2 million and $4 million annually.
The complete absence of anesthesiologists available for Dedicated Obstetrical Anesthesiology (DOBA) Programs means even more inefficiencies in the main OR. While the on-call anesthesiologist is caring for a labouring mother, surgical patients are left waiting for care.
The absence of DOBA programs in BC is costing taxpayers over $12 million in wasted OR time.
Solving the shortage of anesthesiologists in BC would save taxpayers at least $120 million per year in wasted OR resources.
With enough anesthesiologists, those same OR’s would be able to provide surgical care to an additional 40,000 British Columbians each year.
“Government obviously understands that the system is in crisis and at risk of losing irreplaceable physicians. A sufficient supply of skilled physicians is as much an operational and medical resource need of the Health Authorities as hospitals and other facilities.”
(Allan McEachern, Former Chief Justice of the BC Supreme Court, January 2002)