Elective surgical procedures at hospitals in the Fraser Health region may be postponed by a service slowdown by anesthesiologists slated to start April 2.

Updated: Injunction sought to block planned surgical slowdown

Anesthesiologists set to deliver on threat to reduce service

B.C. health authorities will seek a court injunction Friday to block a partial service withdrawal planned by anesthesiologists that could disrupt thousands of elective surgeries scheduled for next week.

The B.C. Anesthesiologists Society (BCAS), which is in a labour dispute with the province, had vowed to reduce service at all Lower Mainland hospitals outside of Vancouver, as well as others on Vancouver Island and in the Interior, starting April 2.

Interior Health president and CEO Dr. Robert Halpenny, speaking on behalf of all health authorities, said the injunction is necessary because urgent and emergency surgeries could be compromised.

“The anesthesiologists have created maximum confusion for patients, our surgeons and other front-line staff,” he said.

Halpenny said the anesthesiologists’ suggestion they could do all needed procedures next week, but after regular hours, could delay urgent and emergency procedures that are normally get priority at those times.

“Any anesthesiologist who participates in service withdrawal or job action will be in breach of their contract,” he warned.

It remains unclear exactly how many anesthesiologists intend to withdraw service and which hospitals would be hardest hit if the job action proceeds.

Health authorities sent out 3,237 letters to patients this week warning their surgeries may be rescheduled, with 1,105 patients in Fraser Health receiving the advisory.

Fraser Health officials say they will allocate available surgery time to patients in priority according to their medical condition.

Patients most likely to be affected by the job action are ones awaiting non-urgent procedures such as hip or knee replacements and cataract surgeries.

All emergency and urgent surgery, including urgent joint replacements and cardiac or cancer-related surgeries, will not be affected.

Patients won’t be told until the day of surgery, according to Fraser Health officials, because the number of anesthesiologists working at each hospital won’t be known until then.

“This reduction is quite comparable to what you would see every year at Christmas or Spring Break or even in the summer time,” BCAS president Dr. Jeff Rains said, speaking before the court action was announced. “The health authorities have no problem adapting to those situations when it suits their needs.”

Anesthesiologists are trying to pressure the province to allow their society to bargain separately, rather than under the umbrella of the B.C. Medical Association, which they say does not represent their interests.

Rains said members are very frustrated after years of being “stonewalled.”

The BCAS, which represents some but not all anesthesiologists, gave notice three months ago of its threat to withdraw service if the dispute was not settled.

Rains said most of the 250 anesthesiologists in the Lower Mainland or on Vancouver Island will likely cut their hours by about 30 per cent, affecting all Fraser Health hospitals.

Health Minister Mike de Jong previously accused the group of holding patients hostage in a bid to win higher wages.

The province says anesthesiologists make about $340,000 a year with almost none of the overhead expenses of other doctors, and that their pay levels have climbed 36 per cent over the past decade, compared to 22 per cent for general practitioners.

De Jong called the threat of a service withdrawal “unprofessional” and referred the matter to the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons for possible disciplinary action.

Health authorities on Monday warned anesthesiologists by letter that those who withdraw service will be in violation of their ethical and professional responsibilities and may be subject to legal action.

It indicates health authorities could take the withdrawal as a voluntary reduction in anesthesiologists’ privileges – and effectively a permanent cut in their work hours and pay – and that they could be sued for costs arising from the job action.

Rains said any attempt by the province to punish anesthesiologists would only backfire by worsening surgery waits and making new anesthesiologists less likely to move to B.C.

“The threats and intimidation techniques and bullying they’re being subjected to right now – none of those things are actually going to improve the situation,” he said.

“Removing people’s licences? How is that going to help patient care across the province? It’s only going to make things worse.”