A shortage of anesthesiologists at Victoria General Hospital may have contributed to the death of a newborn being delivered by caesarean section, a doctor claims.

The death occurred last week at the hospital, which is the primary care centre for high-risk pregnancies on Vancouver Island.

"Due to the shortage of anesthesiologists and the lack of timely access to care, that very likely played a factor in that tragic outcome," said Dr. James Helliwell of the B.C. Anesthesiologists Society.

Helliwell said there's one anesthesiologist on duty at the hospital at night and he was busy with another patient.

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Anesthesiologists have been in a pay dispute with the B.C. government for several years. ((CBC))

A backup was called in, but the surgery couldn't wait, so the patient was moved to an operating room where the sole on-duty anesthesiologist could try to attend to both operations at once.

"Any delay is ill-advised in this situation," said Dr. Sue Ferreira, head of anesthesiology at the hospital. "That's why we have been trying to push over and over and over again for the institution of dedicated obstetric anesthesiology coverage in this province."

Health authority officials said they want two anesthesiologists on duty at all times, but the issue is pay scale.

"The anesthesiologists themselves have refused to provide this service for the current maximum amount that anesthesiologists can be paid," said Dr. Richard Crow, of the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

The newborn's death is under review.

Pay dispute hampering recruitment

Ferreira said there should be an inquest.

"This is a tragedy," she said. "This poor family, they need to know what happened, and if you don't investigate things, then history repeats itself."

B.C. anesthesiologists have been sounding the alarm, warning there could be tragic consequences without enough of them in the province's operating rooms.

They say low compensation is making it difficult to recruit new specialists.

Keeping trained anesthesiologists in B.C. has been a problem now for nearly a decade, said NDP MLA Mike Farnworth.

"Government has to pay attention and do something," Farnworth said Tuesday.

B.C. anesthesiologists earn between $100,000 and $400,000 a year, but say that's only half of what their counterparts make in Alberta.

With files from the CBC's Belle Puri