WHISTLER, B.C. – British Columbia has been in a health-care crisis since at least the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Health Minister Adrian Dix said Tuesday while acknowledging there’s urgent need for change.
However, Dix made no new announcements or commitments as he addressed the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, the annual meeting of municipal government leaders.
“We’ve been in a health-care crisis since at least March of 2020, when a pandemic was declared in our world,” Dix said.
“We need to transform the health-care system.”
He was followed by the mayors of Port McNeill and Clearwater, who described critical staffing shortages, hospital emergency room closures and dangerous conditions in their communities, in addition to health experts who reflected on solutions.
The pandemic demonstrated the value of the health system and the power of people to come together, Dix said, although he noted pressure on the system has been sustained.
Primary care has transitioned to a disproportionately digital system, creating challenges alongside crises in paramedic services, nursing staffing levels and other areas, he said.
The number of people without a family doctor has grown from about 340,000 in 2003 to 908,000 in 2017 and is expected to be higher this year, he said.
Since he became health minister in 2017, 38,000 new staff have been added to the health system in B.C., Dix said.
“You know what everyone in this room is saying to themselves right now? Not enough,” Dix said, adding the government is committed to doing more.
The B.C. government is working to improve the compensation model for doctors, transition to team-based models of care and increase recruitment and retention practices, he said.
Gaby Wickstrom, mayor of Port McNeill, on northern Vancouver Island, said the community came “perilously close” to a full diversion situation due to staffing shortages last December. It would have forced patients to travel more than two hours without full cell service, hopefully via ambulance but possibly on their own, she said.
The region has seen more emergency department closures and service reductions since March, sometimes because there weren’t enough doctors but primarily due to a lack of nurses, she said.
“I’m here to say, if you are not yet experiencing health care issues, you will,” she said.
Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell said his community has seen more than 60 temporary closures of the emergency department, typically lasting 13 hours but sometimes up to 24 hours.
The clinic, with capacity for five doctors, has the equivalent three and a half positions. He called it a “miracle,” relative to less staffing in other communities.
Among the solutions pitched, former Liberal health minister George Abbott recommended addressing stress and fatigue among workers.
Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of BC, urged local training and recruitment.
“We also need to pay them, we need to compensate them, we need to be culturally sensitive,” he said.
He made the comment after Dix said only 30 per cent of the paramedic service was permanent, paid employees.
Paramedics are also burnt out and in need of long-term mental health support, Clifford said, with 30 per cent reporting psychological injury.
Dix defended the government’s record and said more announcements would be made in the coming weeks.
“I think they’re going to reflect much of what we’ve heard. We’re working through these issues, step by step,” Dix said.
“This wasn’t a set piece for me to give announcements, it’s for us to talk about the very serious issues we have to work on together, and that’s what I continue to do.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2022.