Northern Health still say no to Burns Lake operating room

What was originally planned to be a two hour meeting between concerned citizens and Northern Health officials turned into an exchange that stretched to nearly four hours last Tuesday night.

Dr. Alan Hill

Dr. Alan Hill

What was originally planned to be a two hour meeting between concerned citizens and Northern Health officials turned into an exchange that stretched to nearly four hours last Tuesday night.

The meeting between Northern Health, community members, MLA John Rustad, MP Nathan Cullen and the Lakes District Health Advisory Committee was held at the Island Gospel Church gymnasium and all seats were filled.

Prince George moderator Kevin Brown controlled the conversation and said he expected the discussion to remain respectful between all speakers.

Michael McMillan, Northern Health’s chief operating officer fielded repeated questions from the general public over why there is not a fully functioning OR included in the plans for the new hospital.

Locals Joan and Gordon McFee also presented Rustad with a petition signed by over 1,900 local residents requesting the government assist in ensuring that there is a fully functional OR and recovery room planned.

McMillan said that while Northern Health has allowed space in the plans for a future OR, physicians are needed first and foremost in the hospital.

“The problem with an OR is not totally funding. An OR requires that 24/7 service be available which requires significant numbers of general practice surgeons, general practice anesthetists and others on call,” he said.

“I don’t want to say that there will never be an OR, but at the moment there are problems with building one as we don’t even have five or six doctors in the community,” he added.

“We need to provide a stable group of physicians and while we are begging and cajoling physicians to provide coverage, I can’t guarantee we will be able to provide enough physicians to cover an OR. There are no guarantees in life. I can’t guarantee to you that Dr. Alan Hill will be here tomorrow. There is not a pool of [physicians just waiting to come to work,” he added.

He went on to say that the OR issue is very much tied to physician recruitment.

“The OR is not the issue,” he said. “The issue is that 12 physicians are needed for an OR to be functional. They can’t just be random physicians …. are we going to have 12 physicians working in the community in the next year? No. Are we going to have 12 physicians working here in the next five years? Maybe. It is not Northern Health that say that physicians can’t be on call one in every two nights. The recommendation is one in five by the B.C. College of Physicians,” he said.

McMillan added, “People are looking for a balance between their work life and their home life and if this is what we are offering then we will be successful in recruiting.”

The community provided many examples of why they say an OR is an essential service to have in the area, including the dangers of local industry and the lack of maternity care.

“It is the position of the board that we need to sustain maternity care in Burns Lake. It is seen as a baseline service,” said McMillan.

He went on to say that an OR is not necessary to providing that service.

Several members of the public vocally disagreed with McMillan’s statement saying that an operating room is absolutely necessary when it comes to maternity care.

McMillan responded, “Queen Charlotte Island deliver babies without an OR. I agree that it is the best model to have an OR, but it is not sustainable in a small community with six physicians.”

Burns Lake Band Chief Albert Gerow said, “We are not here to listen to why we can’t have an OR, we are here to tell you need an OR.” “There seems to be a thought that we are too remote and therefore too expensive and we should expect less. They didn’t think we were too remote when they were collecting mining and logging taxes,” Cullen said.

He said, “We should name the hospital the Lower Mainland Hospital, that way when the budget is being decided by someone from the Lower Mainland they will approve it thinking ‘that sounds voter rich’.”

“If you have a bad hospital it is really hard to attract new doctors, you need an OR to attract doctors. I don’t want to set expectations low for a crumby little tinker around health care facility for Burns Lake … you need a new hospital up to the level of your expectations,” Cullen added.

Discussion over the resignation of hospital privileges by local doctors and the future of the Burns Lake Medical Clinic.

Dr. Hill said, “We as doctors decided that we had no choice but to resign our hospital privileges. We are working ourselves to the bone. We are stressed out and burnt out. Lives are at risk when you have exhausted doctors who may make the wrong decisions. Emergencies are being dealt with, let me get that straight.”

As of April 30 all staff at the Burns Lake Medical Clinic have been given termination notices.

“Staff need official notice and it is for their protection we have done this. After April 30, I intend to stay on, Dr. Graetz will also continue and Dr. Norman will be retiring but has agreed to stay on here as a locum. We doctors are working tirelessly for you,” he said.

He later said to Lakes District News, “We have the expectation that Northern Health will take over the clinic, the staff and the doctors,” he said. McMillan said that Northern Health expects to have an agreement in place for the clinic by as soon as the end of this week. He added that they are still in discussions with the doctors, but that an agreement needed to be in place well before April 30.

“Dr. Hill may have these expectations, but it is still a private clinic and there are details that still need to be discussed,” he added. McMillan also said that once Northern Health have an agreement in place all staff positions will be posted and new offers of employment will be advertised.

Cullen said, “Under the Canada Health Act, it is the law that no matter where you live you can expect the same level of service ….. it’s a radical thought.”

Community comments

Eileen Benedict said that there is nothing in any legislation saying that Burns Lake has to contribute 40 per cent of the costs towards a new hospital. “No where does it say it has to be 60 per cent/40 per cent. We want this addressed,” she said. “Nathan [Cullen] I want you to take this forward to the federal government and request help with the 40 per cent funding. She also went on to say that the Lakes District Health Advisory Committee are currently investigating other avenues to bring doctors into the community including health care co-ops. [the community hires and pays for local doctors through taxation] “I mentioned this to Michael McMillan earlier and he wasn’t  enthusiastic about it, but we have to take matters into our own hands,” Benedict said.

Local resident Rose Hanna said the numbers for the Lakes District Hospital OR were high enough to constitute having an OR in Burns Lake, however when local residents were sent away to other hospitals when the OR was under review numbers dropped. The OR was then closed. “It is not always possible to get the medi-vac here through bad weather conditions and treacherous roads …. when there is a serious accident the blood will be on the hands of Northern Health.” She went on to say that the salaries of Northern Health officials have also steadily increased. “To who is Northern Health accountable?,” she questioned. “Now it is time to get some tax dollars back into our area, John Rustad we expect nothing less of you, we will not go away, we will not be quiet, we want a new hospital with an OR and we expect nothing less,” she added.

Local resident Steven Cox said, “Just give us the dollars, write the cheque. We got nothing from the Olympics. We got a super highway that goes up the hill to watch someone slide for 2.4 seconds down the hill, but what did we get. We need an OR here,” he said.

Maggie Fehr from the Burns Lake health care auxiliary said that to date the local group has donated $80,000 to the Pines and the local hospital. “We have purchased a table for the OR and a birthing bed, these items are not being used.”

Topley resident Bob Stern said B.C. doesn’t end at Hope despite the contrary belief. “Northern Health has played a big part in dismantling our health system,” he said.

Southside resident Mike Robertson said, “John [Rustad] I hope you take back what you are hearing. Living on the Southside adds another one hour minimum to a critical situation. I am a little insulted by Northern Health dictating to us what we look like on paper. We don’t need 10-12 doctors for 10,000 people, I don’t buy that. John [Rustad] I hope you understand that Burns Lake doesn’t like to be told no.”

Hampton Affiliates woods manager Richard Vossen spoke from an industry perspective. He said that the forest industry is very competitive and that the health care situation in Burns Lake puts Hampton’s Babine and Decker Lake mills at a disadvantage. “We are not just selling a job, but a community and its services. New employees do ask about medical services and we are struggling to find employees. Vanderhoof has more services. We also had 1,700 hours of absenteeism due to medical travel where our employees have had to leave to community for treatment. We pay for some of this and it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. “ Health care is the key to the success of this community in attracting new businesses.”