Hundreds of people gathered outside city hall in Surrey, B.C., Saturday to speak out against what they say is inadequate health care south of the Fraser.
"We do not have any of the interventions that we need south of the Fraser and that causes delay of care for us," Dr. Randeep Gill, an ER doctor at Surrey Memorial Hospital who led the event, said at the rally.
"Our population is exponentially growing and we have to take a stance now before it's too late."
Many in the crowd voiced their frustration with the provincial government. Protesters said Surrey residents get fewer health-care resources than elsewhere in the province.
On Friday, Health Minister Adrian Dix highlighted progress on a 30-point plan to improve care in the Fraser Health region, including hiring more than 200 staff at Surrey Memorial.
Dr. Randeep Gill, an ER doctor at Surrey Memorial Hospital pictured here in March, led a rally outside Surrey city hall on Saturday, where protesters said Surrey residents get fewer health-care resources than elsewhere in the province. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
Despite those improvements, Dix said long wait times aren't going away anytime soon.
"We have more people in hospitals than ever before in our health care and we have more people working in the system than ever before," Dix said. "That demand is the new normal and we have to work to address it."
Response from ministry 'pathetic': mayor
Concerns about access to and the quality of health care have been echoed across the province in recent weeks.
In other parts of B.C., short-term closures of emergency rooms have become de rigueur and elected officials are putting pressure on the provincial government to step up.
In Oliver, a small desert community south of Kelowna, the emergency department at the South Okanagan General Hospital was closed for 24 hours over the Labour Day weekend and again Monday night.
"I'm not getting any reassurance that [the province is] recognizing the seriousness of the issues that are going on," Mayor Martin Johansen told Chris Walker, host of CBC's Daybreak South.
"I really think the response from the ministry is pathetic. In my world, if you were functioning at this low level at any job, you would have been fired a long time ago."
Johansen said the problem in Oliver stems from multiple causes, including a lack of physician access to the province's rural locum program, a loss of the loan forgiveness program for nurses, and a population that swells with tourists in the summer.
There's also the issue of an aging population that can be more difficult and time intensive to treat, he said.
Johansen said he has been in discussion with Dix about the hospital emergency room closures for five years, to no avail.
"It just seems that we're moving slowly and slowly in the wrong direction," he said. "I really question what the strategy from the ministry is here."
Have you been affected by an emergency room closure in your community? Email CBC reporter Maryse Zeidler at email@example.com
'There is a crisis in our province'
In northern B.C., data Northern Health shared with CBC News shows 95 emergency room closures in hospitals across the region from June 1 to Aug. 21, 2023.
The closures include:
22 at Chetwynd General Hospital.
19 at Mackenzie District Hospital.
16 at Wrinch Memorial Hospital.
12 at Stuart Lake Hospital.
9 at St. John Hospital.
4 at Tumbler Ridge Health Centre.
3 at Kitimat General Hospital.
3 at Lakes District Hospital.
3 at Valemount Health Centre.
2 at Houston Health Centre (Urgent Care).
1 at Mills Memorial Hospital.
1 at Northern Haida Gwaii Hospital.
Northern Health said the "service interruption occurrences" were all temporary, with most of them overnight and many less than one shift in duration.
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix admits the hospital closures are not ideal. Dix says the province has put several strategies in place to help. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond, health critic for B.C. United, said the closures are unacceptable, especially in smaller northern communities that can require hours of additional travel to get to the next facility.
"Can you imagine being a patient and finding out that your ER is closed?" Bond said to Carolina de Ryk, host of CBC's Daybreak North.
"We have to acknowledge that there is a crisis in our province."
On Vancouver Island, the emergency room at Saanich Peninsula Hospital was closed overnight for two months this summer.
In 2022, emergency rooms at 13 hospitals in rural B.C. were closed for the equivalent of around four months, according to data analyzed by CBC News.
Even hospitals in the Lower Mainland are suffering from staff shortages, with ER doctors at Royal Columbian Hospital and Eagle Ridge Hospital saying patients have been left with "undignified" care.
Physicians at Surrey's Memorial Hospital have had similar concerns.
'We're taking exceptional actions': Dix
Daybreak North guest host Bill Fee spoke with Adrian Dix about the closures in northern B.C. Dix acknowledged the situation was far from ideal.
"Nobody in their community wants to hear about an emergency room diversion," Dix said.
"We're taking exceptional actions across the north in terms of recruitment and retention of health-care workers to support our communities."
Dix said some of the steps the provincial government is taking include hiring associate physicians — people fully trained in other jurisdictions but who have yet to retain B.C.-specific qualifications — as well as recruiting internationally trained nurses and adding safety officers in hospitals across the province to help health-care workers feel safe on the job.
The health-care system in B.C. has faced the two public health emergencies of COVID-19 and the opioid crisis in the past few years, Dix said, and it is suffering as a result.
"The closures aren't acceptable," Dix said. "Every effort is taken to avoid them."