British Columbia·In Depth

The human faces behind B.C.'s health care system

B.C.'s health system affects not just patients and their families, but the people who work in the sector, including nurses and doctors. Throughout the campaign, we'll look at how government policies affect B.C. residents. In this instalment, we look at the people affected by the government's health care decisions.

Throughout the B.C. election, we'll take a closer look at the people affected by government decision making

Janice Walker said her son Joe struggled with substance use and addiction from the age of 14. But he was determined to quit after his 25th birthday. (Janice Walker)

The decisions politicians make each day can have a profound impact on the lives of British Columbians.

Throughout the 2017 provincial election campaign, we will look at the ways in which different people are affected by government policy.

The first installment, which begins today, focuses on decisions made in the provincial health care sector.

Janice Walker's son Joe died on December 11, 2016 of an illicit drug overdose in Victoria. (Richard Zussman/CBC News)

The overdose victim's mom

Janice Walker's son is more than just a number. 

In 2016, 914 people died in British Columbia from illicit drug overdoses. Walker's son was one of them.  

Joe Wijohn-Walker died on December 11, 2016. Walker said Joe started using drugs at age 14. And like many addicts, he experimented with marijuana and alcohol before turning to the hard stuff.

"He would do anything he could to get high, including stealing Listerine to drink," said Walker. 

Walker has been watching closely as the provincial government makes announcements about the epidemic and struggles to get a grip on the rising number of people in the province dying from illicit drugs, including fentanyl.

Sitting in her Victoria area home, an emotional Walker said she believes Joe would might be alive today if the province changed the rules around drug addicts entering rehab, allowing them to enter facilities even when they are not clean.

Right now, rehab facilities require addicts to be clean before entering and there are often waits for those addicts who go through detox to get into those rehab facilities. 

"We need to re-look at how we support them [drug users] through their withdrawal," said Walker.

"Whether that is having legalized drugs, more safe injection sites, more supervision from that point of getting clean to living clean because there is a big disconnect between detoxing and learning to live clean."

Emergency room nurse Mark Stocker says nurses like him can't spend as much time with patients anymore because hospitals are increasingly busy. (Richard Zussman/CBC News)

The emergency room nurse

The main thing Marc Stocker has noticed about his job is that it's getting busier.

Stocker, an emergency room nurse at the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria has worked at the hospital just over three years. In that time, the number of patients that show up each shift continues to grow.

"More people are coming to the emergency rooms and that just means we have less time to see patients on a one-to-one basis," he said.

"And maybe that is a less satisfying experience for both them and us."

In an interview in the bustling hospital, Stocker said many people who arrive at emergency rooms would be better served by a family doctor or at a walk-in clinic.

"In an ideal world, we are set up for emergencies and acute health issues," he said. 

Stocker said physicians and nurses are capable professionals who "can handle these things, but it just spreads it out, quite a bit and that means we can't give full attention."

Stocker has some ideas. He said the province should invest in urgent care centres that would handle people who are not feeling well. That would leave the emergency room personnel to handle emergencies.

Also, Stocker said the province should promote healthy lifestyles to British Columbians, although he is aware that this strategy does not provide a quick fix.

Osoyoos resident Lee Horn waited nearly three years to get hip replacement surgery. (Provided by Gaye Horn)

The hip patient

It was the wait Lee Horn thought would never end. 

For nearly three years, the Osoyoos resident suffered through pain before finally getting help at the beginning of April 2017.

"It was frustrating and painful," he said. "I realize the surgeons are busy people. When I finally got a meeting with [the surgeon], I think we met for 15 minutes.

He looked at my X-ray and said, 'You need a new hip, this is what we are going to do, good-bye.'"

Right now, there are about 3,500 British Columbians waiting in line for a hip replacement. Ninety per cent of those surgeries will take place within a year.

Then there are the outliers like Horn, who suffer in pain much longer than necessary.

Speaking from his home not long after recent surgery, Horn wished that he could have known, during his long wait, how long it would last.

"It would be very nice if people went on a list, knew where they were on the list and could access the list periodically to see in fact if they were moving along, if they were bumped," said Horn.

Dr. Martin Dawes says even though the University of British Columbia is training many family doctors, it can't keep up with the demand. (Provided by UBC)

The family doctor

Dr. Martin Dawes, a family doctor who heads a clinic at the University of British Columbia a few days each week, said it's a busy place to work.

Each shift, a patient invariably asks Dr. Dawes: "Where can I get a family doctor?"

Dawes, the head of UBC's family practice, said there are no easy answers.

"We have increased the number of family doctors we are graduating at UBC by 50 per cent," said Dawes. "But it's not a simple solution.

"There isn't a health care system in the world where we can say that's what we need to copy. Because it is complex." 

Dawes has been training new doctors since 1983. During an interview following one of his shifts, he said the greatest pressure facing the health system comes from an aging population. 

"The problem is that people are living longer with more and more chronic disease and complex care and this takes a lot of time to sort out," said Dawes.

"It's a more complex process now, requiring a lot of technology and communication and teams to look after these patients." 

And there is also that problem of too few family doctors. Dawes said there are at least 200,000 British Columbians that don't have a family doctor. 

That is a huge contrast to Dawes' experience in the United Kingdom, where he started his career. Nearly everyone in that country has a family doctor. 

Dawes says that's because family physicians there are required to work in certain geographical regions of the country and answer the demand for doctors in each region.

The provincial government did commit to a 'GP for Me' program that would have seen everyone in the province have a family doctor, but they've been unable to keep that promise.

But Dawes doesn't blame the government, saying they aimed high and weren't able to reach the target because of a rising population and family GPs retiring.