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B.C. injects $10 million to reduce surgery waits

Hospitals will get more cash to open operating rooms and private clinics will also be tapped to ease wait times

Patients who have endured excessive waits for surgery may get into the operating room faster this summer.

The province is injecting $10 million into the system to perform an extra 1,000 surgeries province-wide in an effort to reduce wait times.

The extra money will be targeted for patients who have waited longer than 40 weeks for surgery, Health Minister Terry Lake said Monday.

Orthopedic surgeries, cataracts, hernias, plastic surgeries and ear, nose and throat procedures will be eligible for accelerated treatment.

Lake said the money will open up extra operating room time in hospitals across the province, and in some cases it will be used to contract private clinics to perform extra day surgeries.

Just one per cent of surgeries in B.C. were performed by private clinics using public funds in 2013, but that’s expected to rise, although it’s not yet clear by how much.

“Patients want to have their surgeries done,” Lake told reporters. “If the quality is there and if it reduces wait lists and it’s paid for and administered by the public system, I think British Columbians would agree with that approach.”

Further cash infusions for surgery increases are expected in the fall and early next year.

Along with the promised short-term relief, the province is also pursuing longer-range measures to make the surgical system more efficient.

Many family doctors often refer to the same heavily booked surgeon due to reputation or preference, while other surgeons are sometimes idle.

Lake said one alternative may be to instead shift to a pool of surgeons where patients get assigned to the first one available.

Similarly, patients who face a long wait to get into their local hospital may be urged to instead get their surgery performed at another hospital an hour or so down the road where OR time is going unused.

“For patients it’s not as convenient perhaps,” Lake said. “But it is an opportunity to have their surgery done faster.”

More recruitment and training of anaesthetists and surgical nurses is also part of the long-range plan.

B.C. has increased the numbers of surgeries it performs over the years, but demand has risen faster.

Lake pointed to soaring demand for procedures such as hip replacements over the last 15 years as patients realize what recent medical advancements now offer them.

Each year there are more seniors who are typically living longer lives.

“We know these surgeries are becoming the expectation for people who want to live a good quality of life and that is the demand we want to meet.”

More than 50 of the province’s nearly 300 operating rooms are not regularly staffed, according to a health ministry discussion paper on surgical reform.

It said operating rooms are generally idle because health authorities have insufficient funds to run them, but in some cases they’re shuttered because of a lack of specialized staff such as anaesthestists or insufficient local demand.

According to the provincial surgical wait time website, the typical patient is waiting 45 weeks for knee replacement surgery and up to 10 per cent of them wait 77 weeks or longer. B.C.’s target is to complete knee surgeries within 26 weeks.

Fraser Health performed its own surgery surge earlier this year, reallocating a budget surplus to perform seven per cent more surgeries to reduce wait lists.

It’s not yet known if Fraser will be charged financial penalties under the province’s pay-for-performance system for several hundred surgery waits that in late 2014 threatened to extend longer than a year.

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