Time to expand specialist care on Island

While a greying population isn’t the only reason to spread the wealth of specialists north of Victoria, it’s good incentive.

Health officials anticipate Nanaimo will see an uptick in heart health services with a new cardiologist and plans for improved cardiac care.

With the growing numbers of seniors in communities north of the Malahat, it’s about time.

The Regional District of Nanaimo has been anticipating a burgeoning senior population since at least 2006, thanks in part to its aging baby boomers. In Nanaimo alone the population grew by 5,120 between 2006 and 2011, with those aged 65 and older accounting for 46 per cent of the growth.

Parksville and Qualicum also face a growing tide of seniors.

While a greying population isn’t the only reason to spread the wealth of specialists and specialized services north of Victoria, it’s good incentive.

We often hear that age is tied to medical conditions like dementia and heart problems, and the burden of care shouldn’t be placed on Victoria and Vancouver alone, which will likely face their own demographic pressures. Patients also deserve good and timely access to health care close to where they live and that issue is only going to be highlighted as baby boomers place demand on services.

The issue of specialists – and where they are located – first came across my desk last year, when residents were upset by the B.C. Cancer Agency’s decision to move the only medical oncologist north of the Malahat – Nanaimo-based Dr. Carole Most – to Victoria, scaling back local access to one day a week, and by phone and video link. Residents had argued that asking patients to discuss their battle with cancer via video, wait for an appointment or drive south for an in-person visit was an erosion of service and questioned the rationale behind centralizing cancer specialists in Victoria – which had 15 full-time-equivalent oncologists. One Nanoose man called for a cancer centre to be located in central or north Vancouver Island.

Increasing local care makes sense. The cancer agency countered that it wanted the medical oncologist to specialize and collaborate with her colleagues. But if video link is good enough for patients, shouldn’t it be good enough for specialists? And why have specialists located in one place rather than bring improved and expanded health care services to other communities?

Nanaimo’s first-ever cardiologist is a good example. Without the local expertise, patients had to go to Victoria for heart health services, like transesophageal echocardiograms. There are also wait times that see patients missing the optimal and maximum times for scans, according to our new cardiologist, who now hopes to establish a stress echocardiograph lab in Nanaimo to reduce wait-lists.

We need more local solutions to meet the demands of our population. Island Health is making inroads. We have a new leadership team which will be looking to work with community partners and address local health issues; nephrology and cardiology, and plans to eventually create a coronary care unit and cardiac ward, are on the wish list. With a CCU, Victoria’s department head of cardiology Dr. Manjeet Mann says we could ultimately see more cardiologists. He also anticipates a domino effect with other sub specialties. That’s exciting.

Standing in the way, however, is the fact Nanaimo Regional General Hospital has maxed out its power use and needs a new heater-boiler system, which has to be addressed before it can add on. It’s an investment, but if we know by building, specialists will come, then let’s hurry up and pave the way.