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A human face on healthcare waiting lists

One man’s quest to get the surgery he needs – and convince the province to act

EDITOR’S NOTE – This story was written before Minister of Health Adrian Dix could be reached for comment. After he agreed to an interview with The Orca, we incorporated his comments below.

Tom Armour has Parkinson’s Disease.

Decades ago, he founded Armor Installations, a steel erection company, and then partnered with Alvin Unger to form Clearbrook Iron Works, an ICBA member. There are hundreds of iron workers throughout B.C. who owe their training and livelihood to Tom Armour – men and women who have, quite literally, built British Columbia.

Three years ago, Tom was one of just 2% of Parkinson’s patients recommended for Deep Brain Stimulation surgery, a procedure that would greatly improve his quality of life. He has been on the waitlist ever since, even though the provincial government says 26 weeks is the max anyone should wait for surgery.

Letters and phone calls to the health ministry fell on deaf ears; Tom is still waiting.

You can jump on the BC Government website and find out how long the waitlist is for virtually any procedure or physician. In Armour’s case, Dr. Christopher Honey is the only surgeon in B.C. funded to do DBS; he has trained a second, but the government has refused to fund his services.

Thus, a years-long waiting list.

This is the human side of health care waiting lists. For every number on a spreadsheet, there is a real live person, whose life is on hold, waiting for surgery. Many can’t work or live their usual, full lives. Their friends and family worry for them. Waiting lists come with a steep, human cost.

Last Thursday, Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick rose in Question Period to ask Health Minister Adrian Dix about DBS surgeries, and when that second doctor will be funded.

Dix agreed it was dangerous to have only one doctor able to do DBS: “It puts the health care system in jeopardy when only one person can perform those interventions,” Dix said. “That individual — we don't want anything like that — can themselves become sick and unable to perform those surgeries.”

Shuswap MLA Greg Kyllo followed up on Letnick’s question, noting Armour’s case specifically. “The friends and family of patients — such as Maureen Hafstein, Rob Mallet in Kelowna and Tom Armour of Fort Langley — are calling on the minister for a second doctor. There's a very specific window of time in which the DBS surgery is most effective,” Kyllo said. “Again, on behalf of Maureen, Tom, Rob and so many others, will the minister take concrete steps to add the second surgeon and provide the necessary surgery that these patients so drastically need?”

Kind of, answered Dix. But no specifics were added. “This is part of an overall response and an improvement in the efficiency of the health care system and a surgical plan that will see the reduction of wait-lists this year in the health care system,” he said.

Tom Armour’s friends and family, frankly, don’t care about “an overall response.” His suffering is real and continuing, and this surgery offers him relief.

We are not talking about billions of dollars here. DBS surgeries currently costs taxpayers $1 million a year; in a provincial health care budget of nearly $20 billion – this is a rounding error.

Dix is a smart guy – maybe the best policy guy the NDP cabinet has. It’s time for him to do the right thing, push through the health authority’s bureaucratic malaise, and get the resources into DBS surgeries.

If you support more DBS surgeries for B.C. Parkinson’s Disease patients, click HERE to sign the Parkinson Society B.C.’s petition.


Minister of Health Adrian Dix:

“The reality is that over the last number of years, a very significant wait time developed, because there was increasing demand for the service – to be fair to the previous government – and the previous government didn’t make any increases to the service.

We’ve increased number of surgeries by 50%; we know that’s not sufficient. Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health are pursuing a business plan to potentially add a surgeon. If for a particular surgery you’re dependent on one surgeon, you’re very dependent on one individual who might himself get sick.

It’s not just the surgeon; it requires a series of other staff to perform this kind of surgery. A lot of work goes into it, and right now we’re doing the work. In the meantime, we’re increasing the number of surgeries by 50%.

I understand the frustration of people waiting for the surgery. We’re taking the steps we have to take, but we have to get it right.

It’s good news for people waiting for the surgery, but most of them would argue that’s not sufficient. I agree, and that’s why we’re doing the work.”

Jordan Bateman has a long history of public policy work, championing small business and fiscal responsibility. Currently the Director of Communications for the Independent Contractors and Business Association (ICBA), Jordan also served six years as the B.C. Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and was a two-term Langley Township Councillor.