By Loreth Beswetherick
A private surgical clinic in the Lower Mainland has its sights set on Whistler and is targeting destination skiers and boarders not covered by Medicare.
The False Creek Surgical Centre has mounted an extensive advertising campaign in the resort and is manoeuvring to capitalize on what looks to be a potentially lucrative injury industry. The surgical centre is currently exploring partnership arrangements with doctors at the Whistler Medical Centre, the mountains and with Blackcomb Helicopters.
The privately-owned and operated surgical centre opened doors for business in Vancouver about a year ago. Centre director Dr. Mark Godley said the focus to date has been on cosmetic and other surgery for Crown organizations not funded through the B.C. Medical Services Plan, such as the Workers Compensation Board and the RCMP.
"We are now getting into the business of also providing care for people who have sporting injuries, such as people who are skiing at Whistler and Blackcomb," said Godley. "There are many foreigners who get injured on the mountains and they end up coming through our hospital system right now, which is not really working all that well."
Godley said the False Creek centre, along with the Cambie surgery centre, currently handles 75 per cent of all WCB work in the Lower Mainland. The False Creek centre has about 15 orthopedic surgeons who work out of the facility. Many are specialists in ski and snowboard injuries including doctors like Ross Outerbridge — who tends to the needs of the national snowboard team; Barry Vaisler — who cares for Canadian ski team members and Tim Olmstead who works as a mountain doctor as well as ministers to national alpine team members.
Godley said Whistler will also need to be able to access expedited surgical care should the 2010 Winter Olympic bid be successful. "I do believe that one of the criteria for those Olympic games would be to have a surgery centre in Whistler and that is where we could come into the picture as well."
Godley said, however, his plans for the surgical centre are not the thin edge of a two-tier system wedge for B.C. He said he is merely offering a convenient service to foreigners vacationing in Whistler who may get hurt. He said foreign patients are helping clog up an already overloaded system.
"The other aspect is it results in a disruption of people’s vacations. Sometimes they have to wait a very long time before they get seen or cared for or get their injury repaired in the operating room." Godley said the wait to be seen itself can cost thousands of dollars in local hospitals and use of his facility would be cheaper. "The health care system as it exists today sees these out of country patients being charged a large sum of money to get into a hospital like St. Paul’s where they pay just to sit and wait for surgery. We can provide these services a lot cheaper out of our surgery centre."
While the False Creek Surgical Centre brochure states it provides a wide range of day care and overnight stay surgical procedures, Godley said technically what the centre does is offer extended, or 24-hour care. An overnight stay would mean the facility would be classified a hospital. "We can’t keep a patient for longer than 24 hours. If, for example, we were to start surgery at 10 p.m. the patient would probably be going home the next morning." He said if complications do occur, the patient is transferred to an acute care centre. "We do have a relationship with the Vancouver hospital and St Paul’s hospital for that."
Although it is currently only offering procedures not insured by MSP and toeing the lines of the Health Care Act, the False Creek Surgical Centre would be ideally positioned to accept work should the province decide to contract out more surgery. The North Shore Health Region has, for example, freed up some of Lions Gate Hospital’s operating room time and reduced its surgical backlog by a reported 13 per cent by contracting out cataract eye surgery to the private Northmount Eye Surgery Centre in North Vancouver.
The Ministry of Health says this does not set a precedent because health care providers in the past — such as the B.C, Cancer Agency — have established contracts with Washington state private hospitals when local facilities could not meet the demand for services like radiation in a timely fashion.
This type of contracting out is what has opponents nervously watching Alberta. That province is gearing up for a heated debate over a Klein government bill that could see Alberta’s 17 health regions permitted to contract private clinics to perform surgeries that require overnight stays. While opponents say this would be tantamount to a two-tier system, spell the demise of the Medicare system and be a violation of the Canada Health Act which promises universal medical care to all Canadians, proponents say it could be the shot in the arm needed to revive B.C.’s ailing system.
Godley said he has had an excellent reception from doctors at the Whistler Medial Centre regarding a partnerhsip arrangement. The group of doctors was not available for comment at this early stage of talks but Steve Flynn of Blackcomb Helicopters said his company is "very interested" in an alliance. His company would be on call for stabilized patients who needed transport to the centre but details, like where to land, have still to be ironed out. Flynn said a meeting with all the players is slated for the near future, after which more details will be available.
"It’s all in very embryonic stages," said Godley of discussions. "There are a lot of medical politics that go with it."