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Broken bones get financial break

VCH beefs up funding for expanded orthopedic services


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Roughly half a million dollars will be pumped into the Sea to Sky corridor to boost orthopedic care in an area that sees more than its fair share of broken bones and torn ligaments.

Vancouver Coastal Health confirmed this week that it is spending $324,000, over and above the pre-existing orthopedic funding levels at Squamish General Hospital, for the expanded services.

More money for equipment start-up costs is coming from the Sea to Sky Health Care Foundations' Triboard – that's estimated at between $100,000 to $200,000.

The unexpected development, and the funding at a time of ever-increasing budgetary pressures, comes on the heels of a very public corridor lobby to keep two orthopedic surgeons in the corridor in the wake of Dr. Pat McConkey's retirement.

The relief in Dr. Bruce Mohr's voice is palpable as he talks about the new plans for expanded orthopedic care in the corridor and how more corridor patients won't have to face the journey and the long waits of big city care.

"It's incredible," the chief of the medical staff of the Whistler Health Care Centre over the phone, while preparing for a trip to the Montreal's Children's Hospital where he, along with head nurse Janet Hamer, will be teaching doctors and nurses Whistler's unique way of setting broken wrists.

"I am absolutely sure there's no way they would have come down with this decision if not for all the public pressure."

VCH public affairs officer Trudi Beutel said the health authority, which is responsible for the delivery of over $3.1 billion in care, was aware of the need for expanded orthopedic services before McConkey's retirement became a public issue.

"We had an opportunity to explore a number of different options for orthopedic services in the corridor, and the working group's desire to deliver an improved service aligned with the messages we heard from local elected representatives and members of the public," she said. "As a result, more orthopedic services will soon be available along the entire corridor."

In addition to replacing McConkey with a second surgeon to partner with Dr. Alexandra Brooks-Hill at the Squamish hospital, the expanded services also include more surgery time at the hospital allowing more patients to be seen there, and the range of surgeries will be expanded to include minor orthopedic trauma such as fractures of the collarbone, kneecap, ankle and forearm.

In addition, local and city surgeons will now staff the Whistler Cast Clinic so that patients will not have to travel for consultation or follow up care.

Mohr was pessimistic in the lead up to the VCH announcement, understanding that with constricting budgets and increasing costs, expanding services can be a tricky business.

"The easiest path would have been simply not to hire a surgeon," he said.

"Everything would get done in the city but the line ups don't get any shorter."

Still, like any good doctor, Mohr cautioned that the devil is in the details.

"The concept is very positive," he said. "We'll have to see the reality of what that means."

The triboard of the Sea to Sky's health care foundations agreed to fund the start-up equipment of a second surgery because it sees the need for this critical service.

"As it is, even with Dr. McConkey working we really didn't meet the needs of our community very well... from the activities that go on in this community," said triboard chairperson Marnie Simon.

More than 8,000 orthopedic injuries were seen at the Whistler Health Care Centre last year — 43 per cent of all emergency room visits. That's more than double the ortho visits seen at Lions Gate Hospital in the same time period.

It's the reason why the doctors and physiotherapists and health care foundations were joined in their lobbying efforts by local politicians and others.

Whistler's mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said it was a quality-of-life issue for local residents. That's why she joined the chorus of calls.

"I'm really pleased that they've made the decision to replace Dr. McConkey with an orthopedic surgeon instead of a rotation through (of city surgeons)," she said this week. "The additional point with more surgical procedures occurring at the Squamish General Hospital — that's a great decision for the continued viability of that hospital. It's great for the medical professionals who work there. It's great for the people in the corridor who will have surgeries being conducted at the Squamish General Hospital that aren't currently being conducted. So it seems to be a good news story all around."

The mayor wonders if the decision might have been different had it not been for the public voice.

A delighted Simon believes that the concerted effort made the difference.

"I think it just shows when enough people get behind something they believe in, change can happen," she said.

As for the future of developing the corridor as a centre of rural excellence in orthopedics, Mohr, who has been disillusioned in the past, is more optimistic than ever before.

"There seems to be recognition and support from the health authority to work toward that vision and plan," he said.