The provincial government and treasury board have approved a concept plan to build a new surgical suite in Prince George at University Hospital of Northern B.C.
The new building, which will cost $600-700 million, will include upgraded operating rooms, a cardiac care unit and a mental health and addictions unit.
Health Minister Adrian Dix made the announcement Sunday during a virtual news conference.
Dix said the current operating rooms date back to the 1970s and are inadequate, resulting in longer wait times for procedures.
“There was a profound need for an upgrade project at UHNBC, which has become a major hospital in British Columbia - it doesn’t just serve Prince George but of course the whole region,” said Dix.
“The level of services and what you can perform is greatly affected by the fact that our operating rooms do not meet modern standards. If we’re going to ask health care providers to do what we’re asking them to do right now, which is increase the capacity and our ability to do more and more complex surgeries, we need 21st century equipment.
“We need surgical facilities that meet the test and this plan, this proposal certainly does,” he said. “This is a concept plan approval for hundreds of millions of dollars for a project that everyone in Prince George has been working on for a long time.”
UHNBC does not currently have the capacity to provide invasive cardiac procedures such and angioplasty to relieve blood vessel blockages, which means those heart patients must travel to Vancouver or Kelowna. Cardiac services as they exist now at the hospital are disbursed in various locations of the building.
“People in the north will know that there was no standalone cardiac services unit and that for many procedures, the invasive interventional kind, people had to travel as a matter of course, sometimes by plan urgently, to southern British Columbia to get the care they needed,” said Dix.
“Cardiac diagnostics is in the 1958 building and there is inadequate space and no private consult space and it’s close to the hospital entrance with no reception control, resulting in lots of challenges.’
Dix said while the population of northern B.C. is expected to grow by just eight per cent over the next 15 years, the number of residents 65 years and older is predicted to rise 66 per cent over that period, which will increase the need for cardiac care.
The current hospital building was built in 1958 and Dix said the treatment of patients with mental health issues and addictions was much different at that time and there have been no significant facility improvements to treat those patients.
“In respect to mental health and addictions, we are significantly below where we need to be in terms of the quality of care and the number of beds applied and assigned to mental health and addictions care in the Northern Health Authority and at UHNBC,” said Dix. “This will change this. The mental health and addictions services will be in the new tower and they will meet 21st century standards.
“This has profound implications on our health care system,” he said. “The three elements of it that add services, the new tower, the increased beds, all of those critical for health care in Prince George into the future, and then these key elements – mental health and addictions, improved surgical services and creation of new cardiac services - that will bring this hospital well into the 21st century, the hospital Prince George will need for decades to come.”
The new tower will be linked to the existing hospital building by a tunnel and small footbridge.
There was no indication whether the new tower will include a rooftop helipad to support emergency medevac flights. Prince George and its regional hospital is the only major B.C. city which lacks that capacity.
Dix was unable to determine when construction would begin but said the funding for the project has already been approved in the province’s 10-year capital plan.
“In Terrace we approved the concept plan (for a new Mills Memorial Hospital) in February 2018 and we approved the business plan in May 2019 and we expect to break ground by the end of 2020, so that’ the kind of process we’re talking about,” said Dix.
The need for a new surgical tower had long been discussed by the previous Liberal government, which said shortly after the 2017 election that it would be built. Dix acknowledged he was aware of that need as a member of the opposition. He became health minister in July 2017 after the Liberal government fell in a non-confidence vote. He said the Liberal announcement of the project was “a campaign promise” and did not get to the concept plan stage.
“People have been calling for this for a long time, long before I became minister of health,” Dix said.
“There was no concept plan, so there was no proposal from the Northern Health Authority. There’s been a lot of talk about it. I’ve spoken to (Prince George-Valemount MLA) Shirley Bond many times about this because she and I have a good relationship and she’s an advocate for this project as am I, but there was no concept plan. You have to go through the budget process.”
Bond, a former health minister, welcomed the news of Sunday’s announcement, saying the new tower will be a significant step forward in health care for the region.
“One of the things I’ve worked tirelessly to raise in Victoria, whether it was our government or this government is that we need as many services as possible as close to home as possible, whether it was the cancer centre or cardiac care, the argument I made was always that far too many people have to travel elsewhere to get the services they need and that’s not right and not fair,” said Bond. “Today there was a recognition by this government those services need to be added and I’m really proud I played a part in raising this issue non-stop in Victoria.
“Now our job will be to ensure that the dollars finally flow and that we see this project move forward. Even with the announcement today it will take a number of years for this project to move along. Minister Dix and I have had ongoing and constant discussions and debate about this project and he was always very respectful in terms of listening. So in many ways I’m relieved it has gotten the announcement today on what I think is probably the eve of a provincial election.”