Health Minister Adrian Dix’s June 7 announcement about improvements at Surrey Memorial Hospital was long overdue, and seemed to be mainly prompted by an onslaught of negative media stories over the past month about conditions at the hospital.
Dix, who is as able a health minister as B.C. has ever had, made some important comments during his announcement. They may be even more significant than the improvements that are planned. He noted that Surrey is B.C.’s fastest-growing city and will exceed Vancouver in population within the next 10 to 15 years. It has long lagged other regions of the province, notably Vancouver, in per-capita hospital beds, and the Surrey population is aging at a rapid pace.
As people age, their need for health care services grows. Surrey is ill-equipped to deal with this tsunami of gray. The specific improvements he announced go partway to making things better, but there will still be a shortage of hospital beds, doctors, nursing staff and equipment for the foreseeable future.
The situation in Surrey and North Delta would be far, far worse if Jim Pattison had not donated millions to enable a large day surgery facility bearing his name to be built on part of the Green Timbers forestry property. It opened in 2011 at a cost of $237 million.
In 2021, Pattison donated another $4 million towards a capital campaign to purchase more equipment for the centre. The centre serves thousands of patients each year, and takes a lot of pressure off SMH.
For an example of how slowly government moves, take the new Cloverdale hospital. Construction is set to begin this summer – more than five years after it was first announced. It will be open in the summer of 2027 – four years from now. It will only have 168 in-patient beds, so will be completely overwhelmed with patients from the day it opens. Thankfully, it will also include a cancer centre. As Dix noted, the incidence for cancer also grows as people age, so Surrey is bound to see many more cancer patients in the coming years.
Dix noted that other areas of the Fraser Health Region are also facing significant challenges. That is no comfort to those who struggle to get health care in Surrey, but it does provide useful context. The reality is that within the largest health region in the province there are multiple complex problems that defy easy solutions.
Some of the problems at SMH centre around a shortage of hospitalists, doctors who actually admit people to the hospital. At least some of the people they deal with shouldn’t even have to come to SMH, except for the fact they have no family doctor. Urgent care centres, which were supposed to help alleviate the that problem, have not improved the situation at all.
Opposition Leader Kevin Falcon, a former health minister with the BC Liberals and a former Surrey MLA, toured the hospital on June 8 and stated that the NDP government is not moving fast enough. He said planning for a second tower at SMH needs to begin now. He is right, but the government he was part of was also part of the problem. It didn’t move fast enough to boost the number of hospital beds, nursing staff and family doctors in Surrey, and it also sold off a potential second hospital site in Sullivan.
However, it’s good that he now recognizes the severity of the health problem here and hopefully his criticism will prompt the NDP government to move faster. The eight NDP MLAs from Surrey and North Delta also need to put on far more public pressure than we have witnessed thus far.
The health care system has a multiplicity of problems, involving government funding (federal and provincial), a lack of staff, far too much bureaucracy and an unwillingness to look at how all the challenges interrelate. If the pressure by SMH staff, Dix’s announcements and Falcon’s criticism help lead to some badly-needed improvements, that would be great.
However, Surrey and North Delta residents have heard all this before. Only those who actually have to use SMH, those who work there, those who try unsuccessfully to find a doctor or clinic, and those who assist family members stuck in hallways for days while waiting to be admitted, know how bad things really are. Mark them down as very doubtful - at least for now.
Frank Bucholtz writes twice a month for Black Press Media.