Fraser Health CEO says no deaths from delays at Surrey Memorial Hospital

Surrey Memorial is the province’s busiest hospital by a large margin and it is the second busiest in Canada.

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The head of the Fraser Health Authority acknowledged Tuesday that Surrey Memorial Hospital has seen a surge of patients and its physicians are being stretched, but she denied claims that patients have died due to delays in care or a shortage of beds.

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Dr. Victoria Lee, Fraser Health’s president and CEO, was responding to an open and unsigned letter from emergency doctors at Surrey Memorial which asserts that patients are facing severe adverse outcomes and dying because of shortages in acute beds and physicians.

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In it, the doctors said it was common for patients “to linger for days without an admitting physician looking after them. Many patients have suffered, and some have died while waiting.”

It also said that a lack of acute beds is forcing admitted patients to wait in the emergency department. “These patients take up beds and nursing support that would normally be used to treat incoming emergencies. This bed-block forces us to routinely treat strokes, heart attacks, traumas, miscarriages and palliative patients in the hallway.”

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The letter said, “Fraser Health has repeatedly told ER physicians to not openly discuss our ‘challenges’ with the public.”

Lee said in an interview with Postmedia that every incident involving harm or safety issues or death is followed by a comprehensive review process.

“Certainly, we have been experiencing congestion. We have been experiencing a surge in volume of patients. We’re also seeing more complex patients, and absolutely we’re stretched in terms of hospital medicine physicians. However, there are no records that show that there have been deaths due to delays or waiting time to be seen.”

She welcomed speaking to the emergency physicians who penned the letter. She said she hosts a regular conversation that is open to all health authority teams.

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“We’ve been quite open about our challenges and appreciate that physicians are advocating for their patients. I know that there’s frustration because I would love to see all of the challenges being resolved as quickly as possible as well.”

Asked if she thought the approximately three dozen emergency physicians who penned the letter had exaggerated or overstated the situation at Surrey Memorial, or how to explain the gap between their claims and her assessment, Lee said: “Physicians that are looking after patients in front of them, there are challenges and frustrations that come with some of the delays that we’re seeing and some of the gaps in coverage. I do believe they’re advocating for the patient that they’re seeing in front of them, which I appreciate as well.”

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On Monday, Surrey RCMP issued a statement about an incident that occurred a few days earlier when a father and his 16-year-old son were stabbed in an unprovoked attack while waiting in the hospital’s care assessment and treatment zone, where emergency patients are triaged.

The motive for the attack is not known and their injuries were not life-threatening. The letter from the emergency physicians is dated May 10, before the incident happened.

The letter comes as emergency departments elsewhere are becoming busier at the same time they are experiencing staffing shortages.

“Patients are waiting longer, which means that patients often get aggressive or confrontational about it,” said Michael Curry, clinical associate professor at the University of B.C.’s department of emergency medicine.

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“There’s been a huge amount of transition away from emergency department work by health-care workers.”

He added that Surrey Memorial is the province’s busiest hospital by a large margin and is the second busiest in Canada.

“In terms of patient volume, it’s pretty much VGH (Vancouver General Hospital) and St. Paul’s (Hospital) put together, and I think people outside of Surrey might not appreciate that,” said Curry.

The letter urges the public to ask local, regional and provincial leaders thoughtful questions about the dire situation at Surrey Memorial.

“We have been repeatedly sounding the alarm to our regional and provincial leaders, as early as 2022. These alarms have been ignored. Additionally, these conditions have been poorly and incompletely communicated to the public.”

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“The system is responding to an increase in demand,” B.C. Minister of Health Adrian Dix responded. “And our staff are doing an excellent job. But it’s also been a grinding three years, especially at Surrey Memorial Hospital.”

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— with a file from Katie DeRosa

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