British Columbia

New operating rooms will barely reduce surgery wait times, says iconic B.C. doctor

UBC researcher and doctor Pat McGeer says recent announcements will do little to reduce surgery backlog.

UBC researcher and physician Pat McGeer says recent announcements will do little to reduce surgery backlog

In any operating room, nurses require a specialized set of skills — and pediatric surgery is even more specialized, making it difficult to recruit and train new staff, says B.C. Children's Hospital's chief operating officer. (Shutterstock)

Adding operating rooms to B.C. hospitals might seem like a win for people waiting for surgery. But according to popular B.C. doctor and researcher Pat McGeer, they won't do much for the province's backlog of surgeries.

Earlier this week, Vancouver General Hospital announced it would add 16 new operating rooms, while the province committed to investing $25 million to improve access to surgeries throughout B.C.

But the UBC Faculty of Medicine professor and former longtime MLA Pat McGeer says the province's notoriously long surgery wait lists aren't the result of a lack of space or equipment. In fact, the bulk of B.C. operating rooms are closed after 4 p.m. PT and on the weekends.

McGeer says extra facilities would hardly make a dent in current waiting lists if they're only open during office hours.

"I don't think it's going to make any difference" he told host Gloria Macarenko on CBC's B.C. Almanac. "What's important is when those facilities are available — if they shut them down at 4 o'clock, that doesn't make much difference."

McGeer points to the absence of surgery wait lists prior to the federal prohibition of doctor fees and private billing that was made in 1984, ultimately leading to the reduced use of formerly round-the-clock operating rooms.

Medicare Protection Act

McGeer has been at the forefront of B.C.'s health care system for decades. The 89-year-old is one of the leading authorities into Alzheimer's, and recently testified at the B.C. Supreme Court over private medical clinic challenge of the province's Medicare Protection Act.

The case follows Vancouver surgeon Dr. Brian Day's challenge of B.C.'s ban on certain private medical services as unconstitutional since it forces British Columbians to endure gruelling wait times for procedures.

McGeer testified that global budget restraints in B.C.'s health care system have forced health providers to shut down their operating rooms leading to delays in treatment.

He says private physicians could take over these facilities when they aren't in use — if the provincial government allowed them to operate

​"It would be nice if this silly government case were settled so that these could be turned over to private clinics. They could take over as soon as they were closed, they could take over on weekends, and the waiting lists would then disappear."

The debate between private and public health care in Canada has been longstanding. However, in 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Quebec's ban on private health care was unconstitutional. McGeer says there's no reason why the Supreme Court of B.C. shouldn't reach the same conclusion.

"The government should settle it right away. Get rid of the bureaucracy, open the theatres, get rid of the waiting list. This is a situation where everybody will win."

With files from CBC's B.C. Almanac