Little did they know that the retirement of their only general surgeon at Elk Valley Hospital (EVH) in Fernie would bring about a significant opportunity for collaboration with both the physicians in the neighboring community and their Interior Health partner.
Having no luck with recruiting a new specialist surgeon for the hospital, despite a strong partnership with local governments to assist the recruitment efforts, physicians and staff started thinking about what could be done to save the OR. After all, this retirement could mean that surgical services in Elk Valley Hospital would have to close down and over 15,000 residents in Fernie, Elkford, Sparwood, Elko, and Jaffray would have to travel as much as 170 km to the nearest hospital in Cranbrook both for consultations and surgeries. Road conditions during the winter could make it even more challenging for patients to receive surgical care, especially for pregnant mothers requiring a C-section. Increased pressure on hospital staff and resources in Cranbrook from the additional elective day surgeries could also lead to longer wait times in that community.
In order to identify a solution that would save and sustain the OR in Fernie and not destabilize OR services in Cranbrook, physicians came together through funding from Facility Engagement to create a Surgical Sustainability Committee. The committee included representation from the physicians and Interior Health Authority (IHA) including the Chief of Staff, Health Services Administrator, Health Services Director, Site Manager, Medical Administrative Assistant, and Patient Care Coordinator (head nurse).
The solution conceived was both creative and sustainable, and involved the engagement of all parties. First, a Family Practitioner with Enhanced Surgical Skills (FPESS) was recruited to regain a slate of elective day surgeries in Fernie. However, as the FPESS was not starting for 12 months, the committee reached out to the Surgical Unit at East Kootenay Regional Hospital in Cranbrook, the neighboring city, to discuss an opportunity for them to perform surgeries at Elk Valley Hospital - with a goal of meeting patient needs closer to home while creating an opportunity to add sustainability to both surgical programs.
Through one-on-one personal phone calls made by committee members, specialist physicians in Cranbrook were able to discuss the opportunity and express their interest formally. EVH Physicians attended a Surgical Leadership meeting in Cranbrook to present the opportunity at their rural facility, and build their relationship with the Surgical Specialists.
Cranbrook surgeons were provided with all relevant information for working at Elk Valley Hospital, including the OR schedule of open days, an offer to have Fernie nurses travel to Cranbrook for a day to observe the surgeons’ working styles to build mutual comfort levels, and coverage of travel costs for surgeons through Northern and Isolation Assistance Outreach Program (NITAOP).
In addition, an examination room was secured at Elk Valley Hospital for patient consults and equipped with furniture, donated local artwork, a fridge, and a nespresso machine to serve as a comfortable ‘home away from home’ for visiting surgeons as a model consultation space and a comfortable private space to take breaks between surgeries.
On the first day of work, Elk Valley Hospital staff and physicians came together for lunch sponsored by Facility Engagement to welcome and meet the visiting surgeons. Jacqueline Arling, the Facility Engagement Project Manager for Elk Valley Hospital, believes that the key to this solution was relationship building. “A big factor for the surgical sustainability success is that physicians have built trust and relationship with both the Cranbrook physicians and Interior Health.”
The residents of the Elk Valley now have four visiting general surgeons conducting consults and surgery at the Elk Valley Hospital, in addition to the current GPs and soon-to- start FPESS physician. The surgeons are proud of being able to help a neighboring community in need of specialist care. Taking collaboration to yet another level, these surgeons can also help mentor the local FPESS to expand their capabilities to perform surgeries in Fernie.
Reflecting on the success in Fernie, Karyn Morash, Health Services Director said, “With the advent of Divisions of Family Practice and Facility Engagement the way physicians were coming to the table was changing, it facilitated our ability to work more closely together.” while noting that “to the health authority’s credit, we have worked with determination to honor our part of the commitment to engagement with MSAs.”
Given the historical communication challenges that existed between health authorities and facility-based physicians, Elk Valley Hospital is a perfect case example of solution finding made possible through collaborative efforts leading in turn to improved patient care--the ultimate goal of the physicians, health authority and the Facility Engagement Initiative.