If you want to see what a genuine health care crisis looks like, may I invite you to visit British Columbia.
Then again, if you happen to need medical care while here, this may be the last place you’d want to be.
Seemingly by the day, hospitals and their doctors are beseeching the province’s NDP government to act, to do something, about the dire situation in many facilities and, in particular, emergency departments.
Doctors at Surrey Memorial Hospital, one of the busiest in the province, issued a public letter this week warning of “unsafe conditions and adverse outcomes,” in the facility’s obstetrics and gynecology departments. Doctors blamed the conditions for one newborn death and countless other close calls.
That missive followed an earlier one written by the hospital’s Medical Staff Association that accused Health Minister Adrian Dix and the local health authority of not acknowledging the full extent of the emergency that existed inside the building.
They even threatened to begin diverting ambulances to other hospitals unless something was done soon.
B.C. doctors are furious and concerned about the deplorable situations in their hospitals, and are now going public. They say some patients are waiting in their ERs for up to 72 hours for attention. Last summer, some emergency rooms in the Interior of the province had to be closed on weekends because of staffing issues. There could be more of those this summer.
I wish that was all the bad news.
Recently, Mr. Dix announced that over the next two years at minimum, as many as 4,800 breast cancer and prostate cancer patients will be sent to private clinics in Washington State for radiation treatment. This would be the same Health Minister who has spent his career railing against the evils of private clinics in Canada and was beyond joyful when his government won a landmark court case curtailing their activities in the province.
Now, B.C. is paying exorbitant sums to send patients to the U.S. to get treated. The irony. Problems at the BC Cancer Agency have been well publicized. For years now, those who have headed the agency, and the doctors working inside it, have been warning of a coming catastrophe unless more people were hired to deal with the approaching deluge of new cases thanks to an aging population.
Consultants warned as far back as 2006 that the province faced a serious shortfall in medical imaging technologists for diagnostic and surgical procedures. Again, the red flag was mostly disregarded.
Today, B.C. is missing wait-time benchmarks all over the place. This may be the last province in the country in which you want to get cancer, because after you’ve been diagnosed you can often wait an awfully long time for the next steps. And that is a terrifying wait, I assure you.
B.C. has been profoundly failed by its political leadership over the years, especially when it comes to planning ahead for the times we are in. Sadly, politics has become more about putting out fires and executing short-term strategies than looking forward and strategizing for the future.
To be fair, governments have sometimes been failed by the experts, too. A B.C. health care commission report in 1991 found that too many doctors were contributing to rising health care costs. The solution? Cut back on supply, including the number of spaces at medical schools. The consequences of that decision are still reverberating today.
When doctors complained for years about the outdated and unfair fee-for-service model, their complaints were dismissed. Eventually, family physicians started disappearing. Now more than a million British Columbians can’t find one. Last year, the government finally changed the way doctors are paid, which seems to have encouraged more of them to join the ranks.
Even while doctors in hospitals like Surrey Memorial are pleading for help, they know there is no immediate remedy for what ails the system. There is nothing the B.C. government can do at this point that is going to fill the staffing shortages that exist there and elsewhere. It will take time. Maybe years.
Meantime, thousands of new immigrants are pouring into the province by the month, ones who will be looking for health care services themselves. So, the crisis that we see unfolding is likely to worsen before it gets any better.
There is never a good time to get sick or be in need of a doctor’s care. But there is a bad time, and if you live in British Columbia, that time is now.