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Vacations limit summer surgeries, VIHA says

Aug 17 2012

The Vancouver Island Health Authority says providing timely surgeries to patients during summer months while physicians and surgeons are on vacation is a challenge, but that it has to make do since doctors are independent practitioners.

"We lose 30 to 40 per cent of operation time in the summer because people are on holiday," said Dr. Martin Wale, VIHA's acting chief medical officer."That's a substantial reduction, so it affects all types of surgery."

The B.C. Medical Association, a voluntary group representing physicians, strongly disagreed, saying summer shutdowns of hospital operating rooms are a cost-saving measure implemented by health authorities. It costs about $2,400 a day to run an operating room, the BCMA said.

"For years, we have tried to get them to keep operating rooms open during the summer," said BCMA president Shelley Ross.

"It's not the doctors' fault. The doctors would be quite glad to keep working."

The debate comes in the wake of criticism from some cancer patients who say they have been unable to receive timely surgery during the health authority's "summer slowdown."

Lydia Wingate, 79, a retired cancer epidemiologist, was scheduled to undergo surgery in Seattle on Thursday for a fast growing tumour in her breast.

Surgeon Dr. Alison Ross told Wingate she likely wouldn't be able to operate on her until September due to the summer shutdown of some hospital operating suites.

Karen Anema, 57, of Saanich, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in late June, was also told the earliest she could get surgery was the fall.

Instead, Anema went to Vancouver and on Aug. 3 got a partial mastectomy and had her lymph nodes removed at Lion's Gate Hospital, which is run by Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.

Shandon Zetina, 53, was told July 19 that she has a highly suspicious lump in her breast recommended for excision, but that she would have to wait until mid-September.

"I am disgusted by the hypocrisy of VIHA's insistence that only elective surgery is affected by the summer closure of operating rooms," Zetina said.

VIHA said the summer slowdown is not an initiative to save money but is connected to the fact that most physicians want to take holidays during the summer months to be with their families - which they have every right to do, Wale said.

"If the surgeons go on holidays and the OR closes, we do the best with the resources we've got. It's not ideal, I agree," Wale said.

"The peak holiday period is July and August, and we would prefer to continue with normal activity."

But Ross said it was the other way around - that surgeons take their holidays in the summer because that's when other hospital staff take holidays and the health authority closes down operating rooms.

"I find it hard to believe it's not a cost-saving measure. If you're not running an operating room, it saves you money," Ross said.

"From the doctors' point of view, we're not operating because the ORs aren't [open] because there's not enough staff."

As for why it can't limit the number of holidays physicians take in summer, VIHA notes it does not employ the physicians and surgeons, who are private practitioners.

Wale said a health system can't run with a 30 per cent reduction in people - physicians and nurses and support staff - without making difficult decisions to balance urgent needs.

The health authority said it looks to surgeons to talk to each other and prioritize their cases according to urgency.

Adding to its challenges, Wale said, VIHA is seeing slightly more cancer cases than it did a few years ago.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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