Overcrowding sparks code orange at Surrey hospital

Surrey Memorial Hospital declared a "code orange" crisis Wednesday night after being swamped by patients, putting a fresh focus on the region's need to add beds.

All elective surgery was cancelled Thursday to allow the hospital to ease the extreme congestion, which started when large numbers of patients came to the ER.

It was the second time in three months hospital officials declared a code orange alert over congestion – something that had never happened before.

Fraser Health Authority spokesperson Helen Carkner said code orange is normally reserved for "natural disasters or mass casualty events" like an earthquake, flood or pandemic.

Surrey's ER is normally jammed, but Carkner said this week's unprecedented patient volume is "about the highest numbers we've seen."

Well over 50 patients have been admitted to SMH but have no regular hospital bed available, leaving doctors and nurses struggling to provide a new level of hallway medicine.

"There are patients being being cared for in every nook and cranny," Carkner said, including adult patients being put in the children's ward. "The leadership team at Surrey was particularly concerned."

Other hospitals across the region are also full to capacity or beyond and unable to take patients from SMH.

Region-wide, Fraser Health hospitals now have about 160 admitted patients without beds – about 45 per cent more than the 100 to 120 patients over capacity that has come to be considered challenging but normal.

No code oranges have been declared at other hospitals over congestion, Carkner said, but the MSA hospital in Abbotsford has declared "condition gridlock" in the past.

Relief there is coming with the soon-to-open new Abbotsford Regional Hospital.

And within two to three years Surrey is to get a new ambulatory care centre that will free up hospital space, followed by the planned opening of a new expanded ER.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel," Carkner said. "It's just a long tunnel."

Fraser Health last year unveiled a new long-term bed expansion master plan that called for an immediate 62 new acute care beds to be opened by the end of 2007.

That hasn't yet happened, but existing overflow beds are being kept open to try to cope, Carkner said.

FHA president Nigel Murray last week authorized the opening of five new critical care beds – two at Royal Columbian Hospital and one each at Ridge Meadows, Burnaby General and Peace Arch hospitals.

But Carkner admitted that's a drop in the bucket of what's needed.

FHA's acute care plan calls for hospital expansions to provide 750 more beds by 2010 and a further 600 by 2020.

"I don't think we'll see the situation resolved until we see more acute care bed capacity," she said.

Fraser Health has also paid private care home contractors to open up more than 400 temporary residential beds over the past year to take patients who could be released from hospital-level care.

Code orange situations break up into three categories and the one at SMH did not go beyond the initial "alert" stage.

That did lead to officials activating an emergency operations centre at the hospital, Carkner said.

The code orange was revoked Thursday afternoon and scheduled surgeries were expected to resume Friday.

The declaration reinforces the need for the urgent construction of the new ER at SMH, according to Surrey Memorial Hospital Foundation president Jane Adams.

"A new emergency is critical for this community," she said. "The fact Fraser Health called a Code Orange illustrates that. And the community is supporting the need by pledging $11 million."

NDP MLA Jagrup Brar (Surrey-Panorama Ridge) said the province isn't moving fast enough to make the new $88-million ER expansion happen.

It was originally to open in 2010 but was pushed back to early 2011.

Brar said a new ER was recommended in a report as far back as 2001.

"It's not a new problem," he said. "What we have seen are delays after delays after delays."

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