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Abbotsford ER expansion will improve work conditions: doctor

Doctor Michael Newton hopes expanded ER will improve hospital's ability to retain nurses.
The Abbotsford Regional Hospital emergency department has dozens of nursing vacancies.

Health officials hope a $15 million expansion of Abbotsford Regional Hospital's emergency room will help address persistent congestion issues at the site, which has seen patient volumes grow by 60 per cent since opening in 2008.

The expansion, which will see the construction of 7,200 square feet of new floor space and reconfiguration of existing services, was unveiled Monday by local MLAs and health officials in front of dozens of employees.

Last month, a government spokesperson told The News there were "no specific plans" to expand the ER and that Health Minister Terry Lake had been given inaccurate information when he had referred to a proposed expansion in an interview days earlier.

Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong said he believed Monday planning work had been ongoing for "the better part of six months to a year." But in a statement emailed Tuesday, the Ministry of Health spokesperson said the ER expansion was first considered by Fraser Health in 2015, abandoned when the health authority instead chose to create a mental health and substance use zone, then revived and submitted to the ministry in recent weeks.

Dr. Michael Newton said the additional space should help improve conditions for workers and patients in the Abbotsford emergency room.

"It was designed for 50,000 patients a year and we're now at 80,000 patients a year."

Last month, the BC Nurses Union (BCNU) said more than 40 admitted patients were waiting in the ER for placement elsewhere in the hospital, while ongoing care continued for incoming patients. The BCNU said ongoing congestion problems have contributed to staffing challenges that have seen dozens of staffing vacancies require the health authority to turn to out-of-town travel nurses.

Newton hopes that more room in the ER will make it easier to keep nurses.

"It's been difficult at times retaining staff because of the congestion in the emergency room," he said. "It's impacted the working conditions, so this will definitely improve that."

Some of the severe issues encountered last month have diminished, Newton said, with eight admitted patients in the ER over the weekend. That, he said, is both a result of the flu season coming to an end, and other patient-flow initiatives by Fraser Health.

"It allows us to provide better services to those who need it more immediately, the critically ill patients that come in," he said. Newton noted that the ER is the first – and often only – point of contact for most patients who visit ARH.

"We want to provide the best experience for them."

A government release says the expansion will include improved space for trauma, cardiac-care and acute-care areas, renovations to the triage area, "enhancement to the emergency registration function to include an element of triage," dedicated stretcher bays, creation of a nursing substation to manage ambulance offloads, and relocation of ambulance bays. Last November, Fraser Health also announced it would be creating a new emergency area specifically for mental health and substance use patients.

Fraser Health says that staffing will increase as patient levels require.

De Jong said the bulk of construction is expected to take place next year.

"It's a big expansion," he said. "The expanded facility will involve expanded personnel as well."