Derek Keller, hospital director for Cariboo Memorial Hospital (CMH), was in the hot seat answering questions regarding staffing at CMH during a meeting on May 17, 2022.
While attending the city of Williams Lake committee of the whole meeting to provide an update on the hospital redevelopment project, Keller was then facing a number of questions from some of the councillors regarding staffing and calls for an independent investigation at CMH.
Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson and the Tsilhqot’in National Government (TNG) both are calling for government action regarding CMH after the resignation of surgeon Dr. Dan Brosseuk and a letter to Interior Health from the majority of operating unit medical staff called into question administrative decisions at the facility. TNG has requested an independent investigation be undertaken.
Nits’ilʔin (Chief) Joe Alphonse spoke critically of the lack of transparency by the B.C. government in dealing with the current situation at CMH.
“We need more information on what is being done to fix the problems,” said Alphonse. “While we may not agree with MLA Lorne Doerkson on every issue, we agree that CMH is in a crisis situation and that lives are at stake.”
Keller reassured members of the committee expressing concerns over staffing shortages there have been 10 qualified applicants for surgeons at CMH.
He said the response has been “phenomenal” adding the medical affairs department, chief of staff and chief of surgery are working through applications.
He said applicants will be brought in for locums in order to give both the applicants and CMH an opportunity to “test them out.”
While shortages in nursing and lab staff have been creating challenges in delivering care, Keller said recruitment has been successful in the emergency department and this department is almost fully staffed, but other departments are still short.
“It’s not going to be optimal for the summer,” said Keller.
While Covid is still playing a large part and three nurses were absent due to Covid the week he spoke to council, there were fewer in-patients due to Covid recently, which Keller said showed vaccines were working.
Asked for a response to reassure the community after the assertion in Brosseuk’s letter about negative impacts to patient care, Keller asserted “the standard of care in Williams Lake and across the organization is always 100 per cent. Again, we don’t make decisions that would cause any demise to patients.”
Though he did concede “there are times we have to make decisions for all patients within the facility.”
He said sometimes those decisions include postponing elective surgeries.
“Dr. Brosseuk has his opinions and he’s certainly entitled to them but I would say that we would never knowingly compromise patient care,” added Keller.
He told the committee the hospital is recruiting two general surgeons and does not foresee nursing shortages in the unit or anticipate further resignations.
“It’s a team effort,” said Keller. “I can’t make promises that we won’t have service reductions — we don’t plan on having any.”
But he acknowledged some shortages will be out of their control with people getting sick and the problem is not unique to Williams Lake.
“This is where we need to work more together as a team, as a community, and as an organization,” said Keller.
Without housing, recruitment will not be possible, he added. Two lab staff were hired in the wintertime, but due to a lack of housing, they took jobs elsewhere.
“We can only do part of it,” explained Keller.
“We are the top surgical site in IH,” said Keller of elective surgeries for residents of the area, when asked by Councillor Sheila Boehm if the hospital will be able to provide enough hours to attract and retain surgeons given plans for visiting surgical specialist operations at the new facility.
“My understanding was just that he lost it because there wasn’t the same surgeries during Covid though,” said Boehm.
Councillor Jason Ryll sent a message back to Interior Health with Keller.
“All these reports, these comments, the coverage that we’re getting, feels very one-sided and Interior Health have been reminded through most of Covid over the last couple of years that their communication needs to be better,” said Ryll.
Ryll conceded the need to be cautious when dealing with staffing issues, as privacy can be a concern.
“You’re exactly right. Again, when it comes down to staffing there’s privacy laws that apply,” said Keller. “To bring it back to the positives, we’re going to be successful in recruitment. There’s certainly significant interest in surgeons coming to the community.”
Keller expressed confidence in the physician community supporting incoming physicians.
Councillor Scott Nelson asked for an update on the independent investigation being called for by Doerkson and TNG.
Keller said he could not comment on any investigations dealing with staff.
Mayor Walt Cobb expressed understanding, as a staffing issue this made it difficult.
“If we just knew, we can be one of your biggest defenders,” said Boehm of receiving the information update from Keller. “We can be also the other side, right.”
“In order to create an attractive work environment, we’ve got to stop hammering Interior Health and other organizations who are being dragged through the mud so we can create those positive work environments,” added Ryll.
Keller said they all need to work together to get the positive side of the story out to the public.
“If we know the information we can tell the other side of the story,” added Cobb.
Black Press Media Staff had reached out to Interior Health for comment after the TNG called for an independent investigation and had not yet received a response.
With files from Monica Lamb-Yorski.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct and clarify statements made by MLA Doerkson calling for government action not an independent investigation.