B.C. hospitals using portable waiting rooms, temporary spaces for overflow patients

Surrey Memorial Hospital has set up a portable and Mount Saint Joseph Hospital has an outside, enclosed space with heaters in anticipation of the surge in patients this cold and flu season

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Some Metro Vancouver hospitals are resorting to portables and temporary structures to accommodate overflow patients due to overcrowded emergency rooms.

Surrey Memorial Hospital has set up portables as a temporary pediatric emergency waiting area in anticipation of a surge in patients this winter. Mount Saint Joseph Hospital in Vancouver has erected a new enclosed space near the emergency room entrance as a make-shift extension to the ER.

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It’s an indication that health officials are bracing for an influx of patients during this year’s cold and flu season.

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Scenes from Mt. St Joseph’s Hospital as a portable as an overflow tent with space heaters has been installed in Vancouver, B.C., on November 10, 2023. (NICK PROCAYLO/POSTMEDIA) Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10102888A

During a media briefing on the B.C.’s influenza season, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said, “Pediatric emergency department visits are gradually increasing.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix said this year’s cold and flu season could be worse than last year, which saw the death of six children from flu-related illness.

“Last year, we had very high levels of hospitalizations. This year, they are higher,” Dix said during the briefing. “We’ve been caring for 337 more patients per day than we did during the same period last year.”

Dix said adding an overflow waiting room at Surrey Memorial Hospital is one of the 30 measures to deal with overcrowding at the hospital, announced by the province after several doctors raised the alarm about unsafe conditions.

“It’s preparing for respiratory season and trying to make it easier for people who are waiting in an emergency room,” he said.

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Scenes from Mt. St Joseph’s Hospital as a portable as an overflow tent with space heaters has been installed in Vancouver, B.C., on November 10, 2023. (NICK PROCAYLO/POSTMEDIA) Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10102888A

Martha Cloutier, executive-director at Surrey Memorial Hospital, said the overflow rooms are being used for babies and children because they come to the hospital with either one or both caregivers and sometimes siblings, who then require more room. Patients still come into the emergency room to be triaged, but are sent to the portables — which are staffed by nurses and located just outside the main doors — if they are facing a longer wait.

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Cloutier said this is the first time portables have been used in Fraser Health. There are no immediate plans to implement portables at other hospitals, she said.

The temporary structures are not yet operational and won’t be ready until the end of November, Cloutier said.

Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke said it’s “sad” and “unfortunate” that Surrey Memorial has resorted to using portables.

Locke said the province has not committed to building another tower at Surrey Memorial Hospital despite overcrowding at the hospital becoming “absolutely untenable.”

She noted that Surrey’s second hospital — funded by the province at a cost of $2.88 billion — won’t be able to treat patients until 2030. Construction is set to be complete by 2029, two years behind schedule.

Locke is convinced the portables will not be a temporary fix, but will become the de facto overflow solution.

“They said school portables were going to be temporary,” Locke said, pointing to the influx of portables in the Surrey school district, which now relies on 375 portables to address overcrowding.

“Three decades later, we’ve only seen them multiply. So I am very concerned about that.”

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Elenore Sturko, B.C. United MLA for Surrey South, said the temporary waiting rooms are a symptom of a health system reaching its breaking point.

“It’s not just the temporary pediatrics unit. Every single unit in our hospital is almost at the breaking point,” she told reporters in Victoria on Wednesday. “We’ve heard from doctors that people are being kept in hallways. They’re not delivering the care they feel is appropriate for the patients coming in. We’ve had promises from Minister Dix, but very little has changed on the ground in Surrey.”

B.C. Leader Kevin Falcon with MLA Elenore Sturko.
B.C. United Leader Kevin Falcon with MLA Elenore Sturko. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Health care advocate Camille Currie, who lives in Langford, said she experienced first-hand emergency room overcrowding at Victoria General Hospital on Thursday when she waited nine hours to get care for her immune-compromised teenage son.

Currie, who founded B.C. Health Care Matters which has been calling for a fix to the shortage of family doctors, said she resorted to the emergency room because she couldn’t immediately get in to see her family doctor or get an appointment at an urgent primary care centre which have been touted by Dix as a way for people to access primary care.

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“It was standing room only,” she said. “Nurses were actually having to come out and tell people who weren’t patients that they couldn’t sit in the chairs.”

Currie said she was frustrated to see many patients who, like her son, could have been seen by a doctor in a primary care setting but, because of lack of access, had no choice but to visit the ER.

“It’s always very stressful for us to decide whether to go and sit in those environments,” she said. “I don’t want to be an additional burden on the system, but we have to make the right choices to protect our children.”

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