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B.C. anesthesiologists say they have long raised concerns about compensation and staffing levels, as well as patient care. to no avail. (John Lehman/The Globe and Mail/John Lehman/The Globe and Mail)
B.C. anesthesiologists say they have long raised concerns about compensation and staffing levels, as well as patient care. to no avail. (John Lehman/The Globe and Mail/John Lehman/The Globe and Mail)

MDs plan to withdraw elective anesthesia services April 1 Add to ...

Patients opting for surgery after April 1 could have a long wait on their hands after the BC Anesthesiologists’ Society announced its deadline for withdrawing elective services, an action the province’s Health Minister blasted as “inappropriate and unprofessional.”

The planned withdrawal highlights not only the bitter feud between the anesthesiologists’ society and government, but also between the society and the BC Medical Association. The BCMA negotiates on behalf of the province’s physicians – including anesthesiologists – and the impending withdrawal could complicate its ongoing discussions with government.

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“This is not an easy decision for any of us to make,” Jeff Rains, the society’s president, told a news conference Tuesday. “Anesthesiologists do not go through four years of medical school and a subsequent five years of specialty training to then entertain ideas of withdrawing services from their patients.”

Dr. Rains said the society has long raised concerns about compensation and staffing levels, as well as patient care. But those concerns, he said, have fallen on deaf ears, prompting 80 per cent of members to vote in favour of withdrawal.

“We will protect patients who need emergency care, who need urgent surgery,” said Roland Orfaly, the society’s executive director. “That will continue as usual, there’s no question about that. Across the province, elective operating rooms will be impacted. We have not gotten to the point where we are talking about details of what is considered urgent versus elective. The bigger picture answer is we hope we don’t get there.”

The job action was announced one month after the society’s previous president resigned, citing a health-care system defined by “complacent acceptance of poor patient safety.” James Helliwell stepped down because he said he was frustrated by the government’s unwillingness to make changes that would better serve patients.

Dr. Rains said even though the society, the province and the BCMA signed a memorandum of agreement in 2009 promising to address anesthesiologists’ concerns, the society has been shut out of talks. That sparked Tuesday’s announcement.

“We feel we have no other viable option,” he said.

B.C. Health Minister Mike de Jong, however, was just as quick to point the finger back at the anesthesiologists. He said the society has been offered a spot at the table but hasn’t taken it.

“I think that what is essentially taking place here is a contractual dispute, a desire for more money, and to threaten to hold not just other physicians but patients themselves hostage to those demands in those ways is, I think, inappropriate and unprofessional,” Mr. de Jong told reporters during a conference call.

One of the patient-care issues the society has raised is lack of resources for obstetric anesthesia. Shortly before the society’s news conference was to begin, the province announced a $2.5-million agreement with the BCMA to improve services in this area. Mr. de Jong said the timing of the government’s announcement was “entirely coincidental.”

“To suggest that the agreement that was announced today involving the BCMA was somehow manufactured for today is simply ridiculous. It’s the product of lengthy talks,” he said.

Mr. de Jong wouldn’t comment on what effect the withdrawal might have; he said that would be speculative.

He also disputed the society’s suggestion that anesthesiologists aren’t interested in working in B.C. because of low pay rates and high workloads. He said there are 125 active, qualified and licensed anesthesiologists who have recently applied to work in B.C. There are about 400 practising anesthesiologists in the province.

BCMA president Nasir Jetha did not respond to an interview request. Dr. Jetha issued a statement Monday saying he would not support withdrawal of services by anesthesiologists.

Dr. Rains had harsh words for the BCMA, though he wouldn’t commit to going around them to negotiate directly with the province.

“The BCMA will not bring our issues to the table. How can we bring these issues to the table if we’re not allowed there? How can we ensure we’re able to provide the best services that we think the people of British Columbia are entitled to if we’re not allowed to be there?”

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