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Squamish grapples with maternity ward disruptions

A new mother, the mayor and the Sea to Sky's MLA address what solutions are needed after VCH announces some expectant patients may have to leave town in the coming days to give birth.
Squamish Hospital 2022
A recent advisory from Vancouver Coastal Health said that there may be a limited, temporary disruption to maternity services at Squamish General Hospital for the early part of this month.

As a local mother, Kate McInnes can't imagine what it could be like for a woman in labour to be transferred from Squamish to a Lower Mainland hospital.

"I can say that having been in a moving vehicle in active labour like — oh my God," said McInnes.

However, that's a situation that at least some people may have to confront.

A recent advisory from Vancouver Coastal Health said that there may be a limited, temporary disruption to maternity services at Squamish General Hospital for the early part of this month.

The authority stated patients who are in labour may be diverted to Lions Gate Hospital, Richmond Hospital, St. Paul's Hospital or B.C. Women's Hospital, where appropriate obstetrics oversight and care is available.

As of July 4, the authority has yet to give an end date for this disruption, but it told The Squamish Chief on Monday that if impacts extend beyond early July, officials will advise the public.

"Vancouver Coastal Health is making every effort to address any gaps in specialist medical coverage at Squamish General Hospital," reads a statement issued by the authority.

"VCH can confirm shortages of specialist personnel related to unforeseen circumstances. The [maternity] unit is staffed with nurses, midwives, physicians, including a physician able to conduct caesarean sections. Staffing of the unit can fluctuate depending on patient volume and acuity of those receiving care."

McInnes, however, is urging residents of Squamish to demand better from their government — especially the province, which is in charge of healthcare.

She said it's important for locals to write to elected officials such as Health Minister Adrian Dix.

"As a new mom, my heart is breaking right now for anyone who is about to deliver in Squamish," she said.

McInnes said this disruption stems from an ongoing healthcare crisis. It will require budget decisions to be made and incentives for training people to go into healthcare.

"Be smart when you vote," she said. "Don't just try and vote for the politician who's going to save you the most tax money, because…it's not about paying the lowest taxes, when someone in your family is in a crisis. That's not what you're thinking about. Healthcare costs money."

System under strain

Mayor Karen Elliott said that the news was concerning.

"I think what it does is it reveals that our health system is under strain," Elliott said.

At the regional district level, elected officials from Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton and rural electoral areas are part of the Sea to Sky Regional Hospital District Board.

That board raises money to purchase specific things that corridor residents need. At the moment, it's raising money for a CT scanner for Squamish General Hospital.

However, municipalities don't have jurisdiction over healthcare — the provinces do.

"But we certainly have an advocacy role to play," Elliott said. She said it was a complex issue with many moving parts.

"It is a discussion around the affordability of our community. So can we attract and retain the staff required to work in our hospitals?" said Elliott. "Those are things where we have to work hard as a community to look at more attainable housing."

She said the municipality will be examining what it can do with its planning tools, community amenity contributions, and rezonings to support all kinds of healthcare in the district.

"Provincially, I think, they do need to look at how many nurses and doctors they need to support maternity care in this corridor," said Elliott.

"That takes proactive planning, and we're certainly happy to be part of a collaborative effort around recruitment and retention of doctors, of any specialty. But really, it's up to the province to approach us and have that conversation."

Elliott said she was also looking forward to the fall, as she said VCH is expected to begin a healthcare master planning process for the Sea to Sky.

This would involve looking at the population of the corridor and its needs. The data would then presumably be used to better healthcare in the area.

VCH told The Squamish Chief the plan will include a review of all physical infrastructures and program planning for the Sea to Sky, and will also touch upon perinatal services in the area.

Funding and a plan

Local MLA Jordan Sturdy said two things that could help address the problem are funding and incentives for healthcare workers that keep them from leaving for greener pastures.

"It comes down to money, and a good strategic plan so that we can train more people being in healthcare … then make sure that they feel that this is the best place to stay," said Sturdy.

"That's part of the problem. We can train all sorts of more doctors and nurses, and then they go, 'Well, I could work in Texas for [x-amount of] funding, or whatever it happens to be."

Affordability in the area is also a big pressure point. Many people, including healthcare workers, are finding it hard to pay the bills here, he said.

"For the corridor, our housing situation is [or] has been [in] some degree of crisis, and regardless of how much you make, who can afford to buy or even rent?" said Sturdy. "So you know, housing, transportation, education, training, compensation [are] all certainly tied together. So these are really budget commitments, philosophical commitments, and creative business opportunities to try and make sure that people feel that these are careers that they want to pursue."

One idea he floated would be to create a debt forgiveness program that would eliminate at least a part of a new nurse or physician's student debt if they choose to work in the community where they were educated.

He said he was also going to be watching the Sea to Sky master planning discussions VCH would be having in the fall.

"I am going to be looking forward to this conversation this fall, to make sure it's as robust as it needs to be recognizing the growth that we've seen throughout the whole corridor," said Sturdy. "We need to have facilities that include facilities for family physicians, because that's part of the problem that we're facing."

The Ministry of Health provided a late response to The Squamish Chief's request for comment on the matter.

On July 7, the province provided a statement that said the Ministry of Health is committed to building and sustaining the health-care workforce across the province.

It pointed to several financial incentives available for health-care workers in the Sea to Sky region.

The statement said there was The Rural Subsidiary Agreement, which supports the recruitment and retention of physicians in rural locations, including Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton.

The province also said there are relocation expense incentives for difficult-to-fill nursing, allied health and non-contract positions, which refers to health-care providers (including physicians) working outside of collective agreements.

In addition, an agreement is being drafted to allow Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Health Care perinatal nurses to travel to and work in Powell River, Squamish and Sechelt, the statement said. This agreement includes allowances for travel time and costs, accommodations, meals and incidentals.


***Updated July 7 with a response from the Ministry of Health.