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Widespread hospital congestion compromising patients, BCNU charges

Surrey Memorial Hospital
Surrey Memorial Hospital's new emergency check-in area.
— image credit: File Photo / The Leader

The B.C. Nurses' Union (BCNU) says overflowing emergency rooms, including the newly opened ER at Surrey Memorial Hospital (SMH), are causing long waits and compromising patient care.

In a press conference in Coquitlam Thursday, the union claimed that in Surrey last week, patients were lined up in the hallways and at one point, one nurse was caring for 11 patients. The ratio, said the BCNU, should be one nurse to four stable patients.

There were also claims a patient with the highly contagious MRSA superbug was wandering around the ER hallway at Royal Columbian, and a dying man was read his last rites in a hallway at Eagle Ridge Hospital.

"This is not safe or appropriate patient care," said BCNU president Debra McPherson.

Lakh Bagri, executive director at SMH, said Wednesday the number of patients being seen in the new emergency department in Surrey had jumped 16 to 18 per cent since it opened Oct. 1.

He said some visitors might be being drawn to the new facility from outlying hospitals, or  have simply returned to their local hospital following media coverage of the opening.

He noted patient visits routinely surge in the fall when the weather gets colder and more viruses begin to circulate.

McPherson said the troubles do not stem from a "sudden spike" in visits.

"These hospitals have been dealing with chaos for the weeks and months – and in Surrey – since the day the new ER opened."

The BCNU, which represents about 40,000 nurses and allied health care employees, said nurse-to-patient ratios have increased steadily due to unfilled staffing vacancies.

One nurse at SMH who didn't want to be named called the situation of late a "nightmare." She said some staff are so overwhelmed, they've been reduced to tears and have threatened to quit.

McPherson said the union wants a long-term solution to chronic overcrowding problems.

"Fraser Health officials need to get out of their board rooms and see the chaos in the ERs," said McPherson. "There aren't enough funded beds, staffing levels are grossly inadequate and it's having a significant impact on safe patient care."

Congestion plagued SMH for years, prompting the $512-million redevelopment of the ER, which is now five times the size it used to be and includes a Critical Care Tower set to open in June.

SMH's ER sees between 120 and 360 patients arrive daily.

Fraser Health CEO Nigel Murray said the new eight-storey tower at SMH will bring 151 additional in-patient beds that should help.

He denied congestion is currently a crisis in Fraser Health.

"I wouldn't say it's a major problem," Murray said. "We always have bursts of congestion. We had some at Abbotsford and that has settled down a little bit although it's higher than I'd like it to be."

Congestion isn't optimal, he said, but it's a reality of the health system and underscores the need to ensure patients leave hospital when they're ready to go.

He said Fraser Health has added 1,000 nurses over the past three years and invested $10 million in specialized nurse training.

Murray said Surrey Memorial may be drawing more patients that used to go to other hospitals, but it's too early to say for sure.

"I think it's just the newness factor," he said. "People think it's an opportunity to get care promptly and in a new environment. I don't blame them."

Murray also noted the new SMH ER has B.C.'s first dedicated children's emergency department outside of B.C. Children's Hospital in Vancouver.

Emergency visits by children to SMH are up 50 per cent since the opening, he said.

Murray speculated that many parents, particularly those in areas like Surrey and Langley, who in the past might have driven to Vancouver to get what they perceived to be the best care for their sick kid are now going to SMH.

– with files from Jeff Nagel

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