Nanaimo neurologist on a mission to speed up stroke care

NANAIMO – Patients no longer have to go to Victoria to access stroke specialists.

Dr. Martin Suttonbrown

A new Nanaimo neurologist is on a mission to speed up care, knowing time isn’t on the side of stroke patients.

Dr. Martin Suttonbrown opened Nanaimo Regional General Hospital’s first stroke prevention clinic, meant to diagnose strokes faster.

Before the new Stroke Rapid Assessment Clinic opened in May, Victoria was the only place doctors could refer patients suspected of having suffered a stroke.

An assessment clinic aims to prevent another stroke and permanent disability, getting people the tests and treatment quickly including same-day ultrasounds. The highest risk for a second stroke is within the first two days.

But not everyone, especially the elderly, want to go to south, said Suttonbrown, adding some have difficulty arranging rides or can’t drive. Those who were prepared to go the distance faced wait lists before the Nanaimo clinic opened and people believed to be at lower risk of a stroke were never seen at all because there wasn’t the capacity to address all referrals.

Neither clinic has a wait list, said Suttonbrown, who previously worked at the Victoria clinic, and chose to work in Nanaimo as Island Health recognized a need for improved stroke care.

“Trying to get patients in quickly is critical and so if they have to think about how are they going to get a ride, even if it adds a day or two, that could mean the difference between them having another stroke or not,” he said, adding proximity is a large factor in getting people to a clinic quickly enough.

The new clinic is make-shift, little more than a desk, bed and computer in a corner of the hospital’s Admission and Discharge Unit, but it’s busy and growing with another doctor added since May. There has been 241 patients seen in its first fourth months and 90 to 100 referrals over October and November.

Doctors refer patients suffering from dizziness or speech problems to the clinic and specialists have to figure out who had a stroke and are at risk for another, and who have other benign conditions. It’s all about being selective with resources, efficiency and reducing strokes.

“If we can avoid a stroke that is so much more powerful than really anything else we can do once they’ve had a stroke,” said Suttonbrown.

Suttonbrown is also working with emergency room doctors to provide a clot-busting drug to acute stroke patients, something not routinely administered before.

The new neurologist is among specialists Island Health is attracting to replace retiring doctors and offer services previously only in Victoria and Vancouver. Dr. Drew Digney, executive medical director for the central Island region, said 10 to 20 per cent of the population growth is expected to happen in the North and central Island and it’s time to put the people where the people are.

Island Health is in the process of looking for a gastroenterologist, a doctor who deals with the stomach, intestines, liver and gall bladder.

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