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One million British Columbians waiting for a specialist, says doctors' group

Health Minister Adrian Dix says to address shortages the government is working to amend the Physician Master Agreement, which includes specialist doctors
Specialist doctors are in high demand in B.C. at the moment, according to a group of specialists

A group of specialist doctors in B.C. says an estimated one million British Columbians — about one in five — are waiting to see a specialist in what they describe as a “crumbling” health care system.

The Consultant Specialists of B.C. has written an open letter to Health Minister Adrian Dix — the latest call for greater attention and resources to be put into the province's health care system.

The group says specialty care has always been challenging but the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded matters.

“Patients are getting sicker and dying on our waitlists,” wrote the group Sept. 21.

“Urgent Primary Care Centres and Emergency departments are overwhelmed and can’t provide immediate access to Specialists. Increased admissions strain the already overburdened hospital system, and cost even more in both dollars and patient suffering.”

The specialists note how surgical wait times are most well-known to the public, however there are “innumerable” examples beyond that, particularly for preventative care.

The group provides examples, such as a patient with sudden hearing loss who, if seen sooner, wouldn’t have become permanently hearing impaired.

Over 16,000 people waiting for an echocardiogram in Vancouver Coastal Health alone, the group notes. And, patients in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island with new cancer diagnoses are waiting two to three months for their first visit with an oncologist, the group said.

The group pointed to a gap in respirology care in Northern Health, limited dermatology care in Fraser Health and medical imaging in Interior Health — situations so dire patients need to travel hundreds of kilometres.

“These are just some of the hundreds, if not thousands, of stories from across the province,” said the group. “Specialists care for complex patients who are often too ill to advocate for themselves. We need to stabilize and strengthen our Specialty Care infrastructure to support this vulnerable population.” 

In a response to the letter, the health minister said, “We and specialists want to make sure that patients are able to access the care they need.  

“We want to reassure people that we will always meet with doctors when they have concerns or suggestions on how to improve services.”

Dix added: “All doctors, including specialists, have avenues to have their concerns addressed, through Doctors of BC who represent them in talks with government.

“We continue to make progress on discussions around the Physician Master Agreement, and are grateful for the relationship we have with Doctors of BC.”

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