Health Minister Adrian Dix announced plans Friday to increase hip and knee replacement surgeries this year at the University Hospital of Northern B.C., with a goal of bringing the total to 975 surgeries conducted at the facility by the end of the year.
The minister also reiterated the province's commitment, previously announced last month, to increase the number of Magnetic Resonance Imaging exams in northern B.C. by 70 per cent. This increase, which would bring the total to 13,000 MRIs conducted in the north this year, would occur in three hospitals: UHNBC, Mill Memorial in Terrace, and in Fort St. John.
Province-wide, the government plans to increase the number of MRI exams by 37,000 by March 2019 compared to the previous year. The increases in MRI capacity will cost the government $11 million.
The announcement tied into the B.C. NDP government's surgical strategy, under which the province aims to reduce wait times and backlogs. As part of the strategy, which was announced last month, the government plans to allocate an additional $75 million starting 2018-19 and $100 million in 2019-20 to reducing surgical wait times
"I think it's important because people wait too long for care, especially in the north," Dix said.
At the end of 2016-17, 30 per cent of B.C. residents needing hip surgery and 38 per cent of people needing knee surgery waited more than 26 weeks, the bench-mark for when wait times are considered too long. At UHNBC, 38 per cent of residents needing hip surgery and 51 per cent of residents needing knee surgery waited more than 26 weeks.
Dix confirmed the investments would involve the addition of new MRI machines and increased staffing hours at UHNBC and elsewhere in the north.
"In some cases there will be an extension of hours of existing machines. In some cases there will be a new machine and we're looking, in fact, to have more new machines to have here and elsewhere,” Dix said.
“What we've found, interestingly, is that if you're waiting for an MRI, you are perfectly willing to come in at 3 a.m. to get it. That partly is a staffing question, but both the capacity of our MRIs and our utilization of them is insufficient. And then obviously, we need to increase our number of MRIs."
The minister did not provide details of how many additional staff members would be needed to meet the target of 975 hip and knee replacement surgeries by year's end. However, he said the Northern Health authority had already demonstrated it had the capacity to carry out the increases in surgeries and MRI exams.
"What we did with this project is we increased the numbers in the last number of months of the previous fiscal year. So when we say we can do the increase, we know it because we've already set the pattern," Dix said.
The announcement was attended by surgeon Michael Moran, acting Northern Health chair Frank Everitt, and Prince George MLAs Shirley Bond and Mike Morris.
While the announcement was mostly cordial, it was not without its partisan moments.
In an answer to a question about plans for a surgical tower at UHNBC, Dix said he had only received a concept plan for the new facility in December of 2017, and that the ministry was still looking into it.
He also suggested that concept plans for the replacement of the Mills Memorial Hospital in Terrace had been delayed for several years by the previous B.C. Liberal government.
"I think it is fair to say the previous government did build hospitals in the north. They built one in Prince Rupert, they built one in Fort St. John. In recent years, their priority, I say delicately and without comment, has been Kamloops,” Dix said.
"In the case of Mills Memorial hospital, the concept plan was sent to the hospital in 2014. It got stale-dated because no action was taken on the concept plan. A new concept plan was requested. It came to my desk in November 2017, it was approved in February 2018. It had been a four-year wait from concept plan to approval, which is a long time."
Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond welcomed the new announcements, but said it was Dix who had not moved fast enough on plans for the surgical tower.
"I am concerned that there seems to be confusion about where the concept plan is and when it arrived. We should be clear that on April 7th [of 2017], we approved the opportunity for Northern Health to take forward a concept plan. That concept plan is in Victoria and it now needs to be moving onto the business case," Bond said.
Bond also took exception to the suggestion that the previous government, in which she served, had not been sufficiently swift in moving along plans for healthcare projects in B.C.'s north.
“I must say, I resented the comment about the focus on Kamloops. When we look at the investments that have been brought to Northern British Columbia, we have a cancer centre now, we've had added capacity here, we have learning facilities, we started the Northern Medical Program. Is there more work to be done? Absolutely. But I can assure you that the voices of northern B.C., particularly Prince George, have been heard in Victoria for a very long time,” she said.