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British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix speaks during an announcement, in Vancouver, on June 9.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s health minister said the province’s emergency rooms are seeing unusually high levels of patient demand in a trend that may be a “new normal” for hospitals.

Adrian Dix said the situation is especially concerning because the province is about to enter the respiratory illness season, and the anticipated summer lull for medical staff did not materialize.

Dix, speaking at Surrey Memorial Hospital Friday, said there are about 9,700 patients in emergency care across B.C., about 700 more than normal for this time of year.

He said the summer months of July and August usually see those numbers dip below 9,000, but that didn’t happen this year.

“So we’re doing more surgery than ever before, more primary care visits than ever before, more diagnostic procedures than ever before,” Dix said. “We have more people in hospitals than ever before, and we have more people working in the system than ever before. That demand is the new normal, and we have to work to address it.”

Dix met doctors at Surrey Memorial to give an update on the province’s 30 initiatives announced in June to address the overcrowding in the Fraser Health region.

In May, Surrey Memorial’s Medical Staff Association issued an open letter to management, criticizing their lack of “any tangible support” for overstretched emergency-room doctors and placing the health of Surrey residents in jeopardy.

A group of doctors and health workers affiliated with the advocacy group BC Health Care Matters said they plan to rally in front of Surrey City Hall Saturday to demand further action. Dix said he would be listening but cannot attend.

In a written statement, Fraser Health said Dix’s update included progress on several fronts on combatting overcrowding, including filling more than 216 staff positions at Surrey Memorial since June.

The hospital is now posting another 64 positions. It has hired 39 foreign-educated nurses among 146 such personnel added throughout Fraser Health.

Other improvements include patient ambassadors to greet patients and provide support, as well as doubling internal medicine bed capacity from 30 to 60.

Dix said the doctors he met on Friday recognized the progress but wanted more – something he said the NDP government is committed to.

“Their approach was of course positive,” he said of the doctors’ response. “But they’re also dealing with what has been an extraordinary and unprecedented summer of activity in our health care system, one that we expect to continue through respiratory illness season.”

Dix described the situation as a result of “a generation” of neglect for Fraser Health as the population of Surrey boomed. He criticized the Liberal governments from 2001 to 2017 for a number of missteps.

Those moves, Dix said, included selling land intended for the construction of a new Surrey hospital a decade ago.

“I think it’s fair to say that Surrey, more than any other community in British Columbia, suffered most from the neglect of the health care system from 2001 to 2017,” Dix said. “These (changes) won’t instantly make things better, but they have a positive effect.”

Opposition BC United MLA Shirley Bond called Dix’s comments an attempt to deflect from a problem she said was created under the NDP’s watch.

Bond said her party – which changed its name from the BC Liberals this year – invested in facilities such as Surrey Memorial’s patient-care tower and the Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre.

“Minister Dix can continue to look in the rear-view mirror,” Bond said. “What he needs to do is accept responsibility for the fact that our health care system in Surrey and across British Columbia is in crisis.”

One specific area that needs improvement, Bond said, is expedited credentialing for foreign-educated medical graduates.

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