A surgical team at work in Surrey Memorial Hospital.

Anesthesia docs drop threat to delay surgeries

Group could still return to court in bid to authorize job action

Anesthesiologists who had threatened to partially withdraw service this month have struck a truce with the provincial government that ends any risk of elective surgery delays for now.

The two sides were to be in B.C. Supreme Court starting today (April 18) to argue whether a March 30 interim injunction blocking job action should be made permanent.

But on Monday the B.C. Anesthesiologists Society (BCAS) and the health authorities agreed to indefinitely adjourn the court date while efforts continue to resolve the society’s grievances.

“Job action is not something we take lightly,” society president Dr. Jeff Rains said.

“We do not want to put patients in the middle of this dispute.”

The province had warned that any anesthesiologists who took job action could be found in breach of their contracts and sued for extra costs resulting from surgical delays.

Anesthesiologists with the BCAS want to bargain separately, rather than under the umbrella of the B.C. Medical Association, which they say does not represent their interests.

The BCAS is now directly appealing to a conciliator named to Physician Master Agreement negotiations to hear its concerns.

“It was our feeling that we shouldn’t be doing any service reductions while we were waiting for an answer from him,” Rains said.

He said he is now concerned the BCMA and province are working to bar the BCAS from the conciliation process, adding job action could be pursued again if that’s the case.

“That would certainly be an option that we could entertain,” Rains said.

The province or the BCAS can terminate the adjournment on 48 hours notice and return to court to argue whether the injunction should stand.

The BCAS contends a shortage of operating room staff, including anesthesiologists, kept 10,000 surgeries from being performed last year, the largest proportion of them in the Fraser Health region.

Rains said 3,500 more surgeries could have been performed last year in Surrey alone – at Surrey Memorial Hospital and the Jim Pattison outpatient hospital – if operating rooms had not been shut down for extended periods due to a lack of medical staff.

The BCAS argues higher pay and more aid for its members would attract more anethesiologists to B.C.

The province says anesthesiologists make about $340,000 a year with almost none of the overhead expenses of other doctors, whose pay has not risen as fast.

A spokesman for the health authorities said he was hopeful the BCAS and BCMA could come to a common understanding and rejoin the existing negotiation process.