Money is being put towards fixing past failures in the local health sector, but what does it mean for Vancouver citizens in need?
Alyssa Laube, Associate Editor
Canadians like to boast about health care. It’s a relief to walk into a hospital needing medical attention and leave unburdened by debt, but free care doesn’t guarantee satisfaction. Many British Columbians are reporting a lack of quality in their local health care system, and facilities in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland are taking a lot of heat.
The national fentanyl epidemic has sent emergency rooms into a frenzy, with overdose cases filling beds at an alarming rate. This, on top of the steady influx of homeless and drug users from the Downtown East Side into the ER, has clogged the arteries of hospitals all across the city. It’s not much better in the Fraser Valley, and citizens all over have been making their complaints known. There aren’t enough beds, doctors, nurses, specialists, and structural supports for the system to meet the demands of its patients. This has been the discourse on regional health care for years.
It seems that the cries for reform have finally reached the ears of politicians, donors, and organizers in the sector. Change is coming to health care facilities in the city and the suburbs this year. Here’s what you can expect.
Vancouver General Hospital
The province’s largest hospital, which currently has 21 operating rooms, is about to get 16 more. A hefty upgrade totalling $102 million will allow for an estimated 2,200 surgeries every year, including the addition of 40 beds for pre and post-surgery patients to use. Currently, 50 per cent of VGH’s surgeries are conducted on an emergency basis, often forcing scheduled operations into postponement. The new rooms should help lower that number, benefitting all patients and staff at the hospital.
The province, Vancouver Coastal Health, and the VGH and UBC Hospital Foundation are all contributing millions to the project, which is expected to be finished during 2021.
Pat McGeer, a doctor and researcher, has voiced doubt that the new rooms will help reduce surgery wait times. In an interview with the CBC, he explained that it’s the limited office hours that surgeons offer—and not the number of rooms—that have resulted in the mass backlogging of patients.
“I don’t think it’s going to make any difference” he told CBC’s B.C. Almanac. “What’s important is when those facilities are available—if they shut them down at 4 o’clock, that doesn’t make much difference.”
McGeer recommends that private physicians work in the offices when those in the public sector cannot. However, this goes against the province’s current stance on the Medicare Protection Act.
During its heyday in 1956, the grounds of Riverview Hospital bustled with over 4,000 live-in patients. Each resident was there to get treatment for mental health issues, and each brought a unique set of struggles, personality traits, and goals with them. The various facilities at Riverview reflected this diversity, but more clearly, they reflected the times. The largest units on the grounds were specifically set out for male, female, veteran, and tuberculosis-ridden patients.
While it’s undeniable that Riverview once took care of a great majority of mentally ill people in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver, things weren’t always about healing during its century-long run. In 2000 the hospital was criticized for using electroshock therapy, and the president of the medical staff resigned in response. In 2005, nine women who had been forcefully sterilized at the hospital went after Riverview for a settlement of $450,000, and won.
Stories have been circulated by speculators, family members of ex-patients, and patients themselves, although those don’t currently exist as anything more than hearsay. Reports of complaints from the 90’s were filed and eventually addressed. Murmurs of ghost stories and tragic memories continue to linger to this day.
When Riverview began shrinking in the 1980’s, thousands of people suffering from mental health issues filled its beds. Over the next 40 years they would slowly be removed from their rooms and placed into regional health facilities, where it was believed that the negative effects of large-scale institutionalization would be less detrimental to their psychological progress. With luck, this model would get people out of care and functioning independently quicker than keeping them in an enormous institution.
Whether this approach worked or not has been debated by politicians and organization representatives for years, with some alleging that the switch to regional care was poorly executed and led a huge number of patients into homelessness and addiction in the Downtown Eastside. Others report countless success stories and cite no statistical evidence of the opposition’s claim.
The nature of Riverview’s existence and eventual inactivity is contentious, and yet the Coquitlam grounds are still used as a park, film location, and historic site. A few mental health facilities have even continued to operate there throughout the 2000’s.
Now Riverview Hospital is reopening—and this time the archaic treatment methods that were used in the eighteenth century will be nixed.
“A Vision for Renewing Riverview was created after two years of public engagement and consultation involving thousands of members of the public and key stakeholders. BC Housing has embarked on a Riverview Master Planning process that embraces a comprehensive mixed-use community including health services and supportive and market housing,” reads an email from BC Housing sent on Feb. 21. “In 2016, BC Housing assembled a team of consultants for the master planning phase of Renewing Riverview, including those with expertise in land use planning, heritage planning, landscape planning, public engagement, urban design, financial modelling, and civil planning.”
Both the City of Coquitlam and Kwikwetlem First Nation are a part of the process of renewing Riverview, which will include the construction of two new buildings to house the 105-bed Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, 28-bed Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre, and 10-bed Provincial Assessment Centre. This comes with a pricetag of over $176 million.
According to BC housing :It is early in the Riverview Master Planning process, and as updates and announcements become available they will be available [at] www.renewingriverview.com.”
A retired Richmond doctor and his wife have made the folks at Richmond Hospital very happy, making the largest donation the facility has ever seen at $25 million. Its acute care tower, which was falling into disrepair and will soon be restored, is now titled the Yurkovich Family Pavilion, after the family who saved it.
The hospital’s North tower is also in critical condition. Reportedly, it is overcrowded and ready to topple if an earthquake strikes. Vancouver Coastal Health has approved the plan for a new tower and sent it to the Ministry of Health. Its final approval is pending.
$283 million is needed for the construction of the new North tower, and the Richmond Hospital Foundation has agreed to contribute $40 million of it. The remaining $243 million must be provided by government funding and charitable donation.
Concerns were also raised about the condition of electricity at the hospital last year. Power outages and generator failures resulted in halted elevator service, complete darkness in operating rooms, and the inability to provide care to patients.
Tony and Nancy Yurkovich could not be reached for an interview, but expressed positivity and hope regarding their donation in press releases throughout February.
“I understand that within this hospital there is a true sense of community. It’s a busy place with a variety of individuals and jobs, but there is a feeling that collectively, they are creating something bigger than they can accomplish alone. They’re serving the health needs of the citizens of Richmond, and at one time or another we may need the help, skill, and compassion of the people who work here,” said Nancy during the Rhf Family Pavilion Speech on Feb. 3.
On the same day, Tony added, “Nancy and I are grateful that we can be the impetus for this initiative, helping the hospital be the best it can now and in the future. Will you join us?”
St. Paul’s Hospital
Providence Health Care announced that a new St. Paul’s Hospital will be opening near Science World two years ago. It is expected to be functioning by 2022 and will include both a hospital and a health care campus designed to expedite and improve patient treatment. The entire project will cost $1 billion, covering 7.5 hectares of land on Station Street.
As it is, the St. Paul’s Hospital on Burrard Street stands on shaky legs. It is not properly equipped to face an earthquake and suffers from a lack of available space. Patients may have to share rooms, damaging their ability to feel secure and comfortable while receiving health care, and their doctor’s ability to work confidently and to the best of their ability.
Yet some are sad to see the downtown location go. Although the new site on Station Street will be closer to the Downtown Eastside, which is sorely in need of more and better health care, St. Paul’s on Burrard has been helping people for 120 years. Notably, it was one of the only hospitals in the area to accept patients during the HIV/AIDS pandemic that swept the continent in the 80’s. The building is also situated in a very densely populated part of the city, and some of those who live nearby moved there to be close to the hospital.
The new location will bring new and exciting additions, however. Chronic disease management services, a low-risk birthing centre, end-of-life care, and community outreach programs are some examples of what will be found within the hospital.
“The new hospital and health campus will offer an integrated care model by blending hospital-based services with a number of primary care and community health services, both on the new campus and in the broader community, in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health and other providers,” reads the project’s official website, thenewstpauls.ca. “Research and teaching will be integrated throughout the campus, enabling world-class care providers and researchers to work side-by-side, rapidly bringing medical breakthroughs to our patients at the bedside and in the community.”
Care provided in the hospital will include specialized and provincial programs, emergency and critical care, operating rooms, and single-patient rooms. The health care campus will focus primarily on integrated primary and community care, such as services for end-of-life, seniors, substance users, and the chronically and mentally ill. Community outreach and outpatient services will be a part of the new campus as well. Research and teaching will be ongoing across the entire facility.
A Long Road Ahead
With greater population growth, stretching life expectancies, and many British Columbian adults aging into seniors, provincial development in health care is inevitable. Municipalities in and around Vancouver will see a surge in the sector over the next decade. Progress has been a long time coming, and surely, won’t be coming to a halt anytime soon.