In the midst of a bitter dispute with the province’s anesthetists, the B.C. government says it is now considering creating a new health profession – nurse anesthetists.
Doing so would provide a reliable pool of anesthetists in the future, Health Minister Mike de Jong told reporters in Victoria on Wednesday.
“If, at the end of the day [the anesthetists] say they don’t want to work in British Columbia, then they won’t work in British Columbia. But if that’s the approach that they ultimately want to take, we will and are in the process of developing a contingency and an option that would see a whole other group of professionals acquire the skills,” Mr. de Jong said.
The British Columbia Anesthesiologists’ Society has said its members will, as of April 1, decline to participate in elective surgeries because of a contract dispute with the government. They are demanding binding arbitration to settle issues including wages, cutting waiting lists and patient safety.
Mr. de Jong said work is underway on legislation to have nurse practitioners trained with the new skills, echoing a tradition of nurse anesthetists in the United States.
“It requires legislative change, and yes we are prepared and preparing to make that legislative change so we would have a larger body of professionals capable of providing this service on a reliable basis,” he said.
“If I am a patient, I want my surgical team to be comprised of people who want to be there, who want to do the work. There’s a whole group of people who fit into that category and with some additional training would be prepared to do that work.”
The head of the anesthesiologists society accused the government of intimidation.
“It’s unfortunate one would use a threat like that to bully and intimidate physicians,” Jeff Rains said.
The protest was intended to see specialists avoid elective surgeries, but participate in emergencies, urgent, cancer and obstetrical surgeries as well as pediatric surgeries. However, Dr. Rains said Wednesday that anesthetists will work into the evening to try and accommodate already-booked elective surgeries.
Mr. de Jong said 200 of 472 B.C. anesthetists have returned letters to the province’s health authorities saying they won’t join the protest. Dr. Rains said he thought the minister was exaggerating, but did not have specific figures to counter the government’s assertion.
“I have anecdotal reports of a few people,” he said. “It’s not a significant percentage.”
Mr. de Jong said the whole situation has left health authorities considering contingencies for lapses in service that include shuffling patients to hospitals where anesthetists are available, and moving patients to Washington State or Alberta.
A Vancouver law firm acting for the province’s health authorities has threatened legal action this week to prevent a walkout. It has also warned that it may strip practitioners of their privileges to practice.