Surgical staff in action at an operating room at Surrey Memorial Hospital.

Surgery shuffle in Surrey a ‘charade’

No net gain in ORs yet with new outpatient hospital

Anesthesiologists are accusing Fraser Health of playing “musical operating rooms” by opening brand new ORs at the new $237-million Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre while simultaneously closing other ORs at nearby Surrey Memorial Hospital.

An ongoing shortage of anesthesiologists has kept the region’s hospitals from opening more ORs and they continue to wrestle with lengthy backlogs for elective surgeries.

Only two of the six new ORs in the just-opened outpatient hospital are being used initially and they are in effect transferred from SMH, which drops from 10 staffed ORs (out of 13 available) to eight.

That triples the number of empty ORs sitting unused in Surrey from three to nine, according to Dr. Roland Orfaly, spokesperson for B.C.’s Coalition of Anesthesiologists for Change.

“The opening of ORs at the Jim Pattison Centre is just a charade to protect the reputation of the politicians,” Orfaly said, calling the empty ORs expensive storage rooms.

“In terms of dealing with the backlog of patients waiting for surgery, all those capital dollars will have no effect until B.C. improves its ability to recruit and retain more anesthesiologists.”

He said the failure to recruit more staff means there’s no net improvement in surgery at the two facilities, and possibly a reduction because the Jim Pattison ORs are now available only for day surgery, rather than the more urgent cases those staff sometimes treated at SMH.

“There’s now less access for major surgery than there was before,” said Orfaly, who lives in Surrey and works at Royal Columbian Hospital.

Fraser Health officials say the plan all along has been to initially transfer surgical staff, anesthesiologists and patients to the outpatient hospital from SMH, helping decongest the main hospital.

Dr. Peter Blair, the region’s program medical director for surgery, confirmed there is no net increase in surgical capacity for now – due to the shortage of anesthesiologists.

“There will be when we get all the ORs running,” he said.

Recruitment efforts continue, he said, adding Fraser Health has just hired one new anesthesiologist to start in July and hopes to recruit three more.

If successful, two would go to Royal Columbian Hospital while another two would allow Fraser Health to start running four ORs at the Surrey outpatient hospital starting this fall.

Blair stressed Fraser Health has all the money it needs to operate the Jim Pattison outpatient centre as planned.

He said the health authority has no control over the number of anesthesiologists who opt to work in the region, noting they are paid through the Medical Services Plan.

The anesthesiologists agree Fraser Health’s hands are tied.

They say the province needs to spend more on their pay and supports in order to recruit more anaesthesiologists, ease the shortage and open more ORs.

Their counterparts in some other parts of Canada are paid twice as much, Orfaly said.

“When Fraser Health tries to recruit, the response is ‘I’m not moving to B.C. and taking a 50-per-cent pay cut,'” Orfaly said. “If government can’t address that underlying problem, this is going to continue.”

They also say the government could hire anesthesia assistants to help with the workload and make ORs run more efficiently.

Orfaly’s outspoken coalition of anesthesiologists are mostly also members of the broader B.C. Anesthesiology Society, but feel it has been too restrained in criticizing the provincial government.

Orfaly predicts more OR closures at hospitals across the region this summer, causing more cancelled surgeries and lengthening waits for treatment.

“There will be hundreds of OR slates cancelled across Fraser Health this summer due to the anesthesiologist shortage, meaning thousands of surgeries,” he predicted.