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Comment: Private surgical centre not a fix for long wait times

Patients in British Columbia are waiting longer to access necessary surgical services than their counterparts in other provinces. And within B.C., Vancouver Island patients have it the worst.

Patients in British Columbia are waiting longer to access necessary surgical services than their counterparts in other provinces. And within B.C., Vancouver Island patients have it the worst.

Less than half are able to access major orthopedic procedures such as hip- and knee-replacement surgery within the recommended 26-week waiting period.

There’s no question that Islanders are suffering. But Island Health’s $30-million contract with the privately owned View Royal Surgical Centre is not the salve that will reduce surgical wait times in the region. In fact, this “solution” will only further complicate a worsening condition and do little to improve Islanders’ access to safe, quality patient care.

Why? Because we cannot address the demand for health services if we don’t tend to the root of the problem, which is the supply of nurses.

Ask any acute-care nurse working in Victoria and they’ll tell you they’re aware of the chronic and ongoing nurse retention and recruitment problems plaguing the operating rooms at Victoria General and Royal Jubilee hospitals.

At present, there are unfilled positions at both facilities: Nine out of 54 positions at VGH and 10 out of 54 positions at RJH, and minimum staffing levels are being maintained only through the consistent use of overtime that comes at the cost of nurses’ health.

Both of these units are in crisis. But management is making matters worse and creating more turmoil by changing nurses’ work schedules in preparation for the opening of View Royal Surgical Centre. As a result, some nurses are leaving the units, meaning an inadequate supply of qualified operating-room nursing staff is getting even smaller. Not surprisingly, job postings have increased, yet the employer is having little success finding nurses willing to work under the current conditions.

Island Health’s inability to staff Victoria’s hospitals adequately has contributed to growing waits for surgeries. But this health authority is not alone. B.C. is experiencing the most acute shortage of specialty trained nurses in over 20 years.

Across the province, operating-room nurses are coming to work early and leaving late, all the while dealing with the pressure and stress of inadequate staffing levels. In cities big and small, and in rural and remote settings, there are just not enough nurses to meet health authorities’ contractual obligations to provide safe patient care.

Without the education investments that are needed, the problem is only going to get worse. According to the government’s most recent B.C. labour market outlook data, health care is one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the B.C. economy, with more than 30,000 new nurse positions projected to be needed by 2025.

The B.C. Nurses’ Union has told the government and health employers that they need to create regular nurse positions to fix the problem, or B.C.’s health-care system will forever be running on overtime and struggling to maintain minimum staffing levels.

We’re committed to ensuring the province invests in the nurses required for safe patient care. In our last round of collective bargaining, we secured an agreement that would increase B.C.’s education capacity by 850 full-time specialty-educated positions across the province, which includes operating-room nurses.

B.C.’s nurse shortage is real, and inadequate staffing puts patients at risk. B.C. needs to hire, educate and retain enough nurses to provide safe, quality and timely care for all.

Paying for the use of privately owned operating rooms does nothing to address this crisis. In fact, it will likely serve to increase surgical wait times overall as those specialty-educated nurses working in public operating rooms migrate to private facilities and flee an inadequately resourced public system.

 

Gayle Duteil is president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union.