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Anesthesiologists' job action could affect elective procedures

Anesthesiologists in B.C. announce the withdrawal of services over a continuing dispute over staffing and compensation.

Globe files/Globe files

One month after the president of the B.C. Anesthesiologists' Society resigned, citing a health-care system defined by "complacent acceptance of poor patient safety," the society is trying again to get the government's attention, this time by having its members withdraw elective anesthesia services.

The planned withdrawal – which could affect non-urgent surgical procedures – has drawn criticism from the B.C. Medical Association, which bluntly says it does not support the action.

The society, which has long been in a dispute with the province over staffing and compensation levels, has called a news conference for Tuesday to announce a withdrawal deadline. The society would not comment Monday on when that deadline might be, or which services it considers elective.

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"This is not going to be every hospital in the province is going to be completely shut down," Roland Orfaly, the society's executive director, said in an interview. "The point, we hope, is simply that attention to the issue will convince government they actually have to create a process for us."

The society says B.C. anesthesiologists have the highest workload in Canada and the lowest remuneration. It says the province's Ministry of Health has also refused to negotiate or enter into binding arbitration on a number of patient-care issues.

Health Minister Mike de Jong declined an interview request Monday.

Nasir Jetha, BCMA's president, said physicians must exhaust various processes before withdrawing services. That's covered under a physician master agreement with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C.

"The physician master agreement contains procedures that allow anesthesiologists to initiate a review of quality of care issues that affect their patients. They have not used these procedures," Dr. Jetha wrote in a statement.

"The physician master agreement also requires that physicians exhaust all of the procedures in the agreement before giving 90 days notice of withdrawal of services. The anesthesiologists have not done so."

A BCMA spokeswoman said there's no official description on what constitutes an elective anesthesia service. She said the term is usually reserved for a surgery that's booked in advance, as opposed to a surgery done on an emergency basis.

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BCMA negotiates compensation for and on behalf of the province's physicians. It's currently working on a new agreement with the province.

The fight between the province and its anesthesiologists has spilled into the public view in recent months.

In November, James Helliwell resigned as the society's president because he said he was frustrated by the government's unwillingness to make changes that would better serve patients and reduce waiting lists. He accused officials within the provincial government and BCMA of being happy to maintain the status quo.

Dr. Jetha said the BCMA and province negotiated a separate $18.6-million agreement to support anesthesiologists nearly three years ago.

"The BCMA is currently in discussions with government on how to make additional resources available to address anesthesia services for expectant mothers," he said.

The society of anesthesiologists said last week its members have voted unanimously to offer $3-million of their own funding to recruit extra staff.

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