Emergency room doctors in Victoria say understaffing is putting patients at risk. ((CBC))

Emergency doctors in Victoria are adding their voices to a growing list of physicians who say B.C.'s ER departments are understaffed.

The three-year contract for ER physicians expired at the end of March. Since then, ER doctors across the province have been raising concerns over patient care.

Emergency room doctors say they are seeing a 20 per cent increase in the number of patients, with no increase in the number of physicians since 2007.

Dr. Dennis McElgunn, who speaks for emergency room doctors at Victoria General Hospital, said that shortage is putting patients at risk.

"ERs aren't as safe as they should be. They are a dangerous place if you are sick," he said.

"In an emergency department, if you wait longer and you have a life or limb-threatening problem, you're going to wait longer before any interventions are done."

Emergency room doctors, the B.C. Medical Association and the province were negotiating to solve staffing problems but talks broke down in December, with little movement since then.

Touring a new facility in Victoria on Thursday, Health Minister Kevin Falcon said it's fine for doctors to make their case as long as they don't unnecessarily scare the public.

"It's very unfortunate when that kind of language is utilized, frankly, but nevertheless I realize there is a negotiation process underway and it's bound to happen," the health minister said.

Heidi Oetter is the registrar for the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons, which licences doctors.

She said doctors are frustrated, but said there are limits on how far they should go.

"Dragging patients into it — it's not right," she said. "But ... advocating for services on an individual basis, that's entirely appropriate."

Doctor shortage not the problem: researcher

Meanwhile, University of British Columbia economist Robert Evans said the problem is not the number of doctors at all.

Evans is part of a research project called Anatomy of a Doctor Shortage.

"The curious thing is that when you look at the doctor supply, it really hasn't changed since 1990."

Evans said the problem seems to be that doctors are not working as many hours as they used to, but the amount of money billed per doctor is going up.

"Because when you do get an hour of time, you get referred for more kinds of testing services."

Evans said that means the health system is paying out more money but getting fewer doctor hours in return, which is causing a funding shortage.

He suggests the province needs to look at what it is paying doctors to do and see if all of the services are necessary.