Thursday, October 23, 2014
Last updated: 2 hours ago

No easy answers for B.C. anesthesiologist shortages

File photo Peter Wojnar/The Ubyssey

VANCOUVER (CUP) — Striking the right balance of university spots and available positions for anesthesiologists in B.C. is a tricky business, and the consequences can leave patients on shaky ground.

For several days this month, Peace Arch Hospital in Surrey issued a notice that the hospital wouldn’t be accepting child deliveries due to a lack of anesthesiologists. These specialists are in charge of administering anesthesia to patients, often those in critical care or preparing to give birth.

Universities, doctors and the Ministry of Health Services all give different reasons for these occurrences of unavailability.

UBC Medicine claims that funding is not being directed towards the anesthesiologist program and the number of seats they can dedicate to the program is bound by the province.

“The issue is also post-grad training [being] funded by the Ministry of Health Services. We receive some direction from them around the numbers we should be training. That’s why we’re focused on generalists,” said Daniel Presnell, spokesperson for the UBC Faculty of Medicine.

More seats were added to the anesthesiology specialization at UBC’s medical school in recent years, bringing the number of spots up from 8 to 11. But Presnell explained that due to an identified shortage in general physicians throughout B.C., the ministry has chosen to focus training there rather than on anesthesiologists.

This attention to general practitioners has contributed to an increase of nearly double the amount of MD graduates over the past 10 years, up to the current number of 288 each year.

Each student goes through training in a combination of four different programs: the traditional program in Vancouver, the northern program at the University of Northern B.C., the island program at the University of Victoria or the southern program in Kelowna.

Exposure to a variety of communities beyond Vancouver was partly an attempt to address another pressing issue: retention of graduates.

Dr. Matthew Klas, the residency program director at UBC’s department of anesthesiology, said it hasn’t exactly helped graduates stay in those communities.

“They haven’t really, I must say. The main reason is there are so many opportunities in the local Vancouver hospitals that they tend to stay in this region,” said Klas. “There’s a lot of problems in the rural communities.”

Sean McLean is a fourth-year UBC student who is in residency training and involved in the anesthesiology program. While he plans to stay in B.C. after he graduates, he knows many other classmates who will be leaving for greener pastures.

“Some people have different priorities about where they want to live or work,” said McLean. “It’s hard to ignore the fact that all you have to do is go to the province next door and a staff person can make up to two times what they can make in B.C. That’s a difficult thing to get your head around.”

McLean was referring to the hourly rate that anesthesiologists in B.C. make compared to other provinces.

Earlier this year, the B.C. Anesthesiologists Society was locked in a bitter dispute with the B.C. Medical Association and the provincial government, with the anesthesiologists threatening walk-offs. The anesthesiologists claimed that the B.C. Medical Association was not doing enough to push the government for more pay, while the B.C. Medical Association argued that the anesthesiologists blocked new hires in an effort to drive up wages.

Ryan Jabbs, media spokesperson for the Ministry of Health Services, said the hourly rate is something that the government has been working to address.

“We’ve been working with the anesthesiologists for a long time; they’re looking for more money to provide more services,” said Jabbs.

But until a push is made to ensure enough people are trained and willing to stick around, new graduates will have to wait.

“It is difficult to see the back-and-forth you see about our speciality and the conflicts about acquiring more funding,” said McLean.

“Being a resident, I try and focus primarily on my studies and come out being the best anesthesiologist I can be.”