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Senior physician warns of a crisis in one of BC’s busiest ERs

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The most senior emergency physician at one of British Columbia’s busiest hospitals has come forward to warn the public about the ongoing crisis inside the emergency department, saying the situation has deteriorated to the point where some patients are waiting as many as three days to be admitted to other wards.

Dr. Urbain Ip said the understaffing and overcrowding problems in the emergency room at Surrey Memorial Hospital have him and his colleagues regularly going home “worried sick” about their patients.

“Right now, if my loved one got sick, I’m not sure if I would send [them] to my hospital … and that’s a terrible thing to feel,” said Ip, who’s been an emergency doctor for more than 30 years.

“We are in deep trouble right now.”

Ip was among three dozen emergency physicians who signed a blistering letter this month claiming health officials have refused to publicly admit the scale of an ER staffing crisis that has patients waiting — and sometimes dying — in hallways without adequate care.

CBC News agreed to withhold the physicians’ identities when they released the letter last week because they feared repercussions at work, but Ip said he’s speaking out by name in an effort to drive the team’s message home.

“I need Fraser Health to be transparent with the public and recognize that we are in trouble,” said Ip, who is also a clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Emergency Medicine and the former medical director of Surrey Memorial Hospital.

Regardless, Ip said patients should always go to the ER during a health emergency.

“Look, I’m really worried about the hospital’s ability to take care of my loved one but I want the citizens to know: if you are really sick, if you have chest pain, if you have stroke symptoms, don’t be afraid to come to the emergency,” he said.

“We will look after you no matter what.”

WATCH | Senior physician at Surrey hospital speaks about conditions that are leaving staff ‘worried sick’:

Senior physician at Surrey hospital speaks about conditions that are leaving staff ‘worried sick’

Dr. Urbain Ip, a leading emergency room physician at Surrey Memorial Hospital, said conditions in the department have broken down to the point where patients can be stranded in hallways for days at a time.

House doctor shortage leaving patients stranded, letter says

The doctors’ letter last week pointed to one key problem: a lack of “house doctors,” or hospitalists, means patients linger in the ER for days because there aren’t enough staffers to admit them to the next ward.

“You talk to the hospitalist and you write an order to admit them … lots of times these patients are not seen for 24, 48 and sometimes 72 hours,” said Ip, speaking in an interview with CBC’s On the Coast on Tuesday.

“The first 48 hours of these sick patients, they can deteriorate, they can change status and it’s very, very critical — very, very important — that these patients are looked after by physicians and reassessed repeatedly.”

The word
Surrey Memorial Hospital is pictured on March 6. Several physicians working in the center’s emergency department have released an open letter last week warning the public about the conditions inside. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Ip said the situation has staff morale at a low.

“I tell you, this group of physicians that I work with … [each] is a very, very competent, compassionate and dedicated physician. Each of them now go home worried … they don’t know what’s going to happen to those patients,” he said.

“They are the last doctor who saw them. If that patient deteriorates and has any adverse effects, they feel responsible and that’s a really, really tough way to finish the day’s work.”

Surrey Memorial Hospital has the busiest emergency room in the province, according to Fraser Health.

The health authority on Wednesday acknowledged “longer-than-normal wait times” for patients and said recruitment staff are focusing on hospitals, internal medicine physicians and nurse practitioners. The authority said it’s also “expanded nursing team for Surrey Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Department, intensive care unit and other medical-surgical units.”

“As a result of our recruitment efforts, we have seen a reduction in vacancies within Surrey Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Department,” read an email, which did not specify how many vacancies had been filled.

“We know the long waits can be challenging for patients and their families, and we thank them for their continued patience and kindness during visits to our Emergency Departments.”

In response to the letter last week, Health Minister Adrian Dix acknowledged workers’ “frustration” and said the province was “actively” working to hire more hospitalists.

Ip said doctors are not seeing results.

“Whatever he added, whatever physicians have been added to the hospital, it’s not working,” he said.

“We want them to recognize how miserable we are, how low morale is… And we want them to hurry up and finish the negotiations of the contract with the hospitalists so that the hospitalist group can hire.”