Surrey Memorial's pediatric ward over capacity, slammed daily with 100s of patients: ER doctor

Gill says Surrey Memorial Hospital's pediatric emergency department is seeing about 100 more cases daily than it did last year.  (Kiran Singh/CBC - image credit)
Gill says Surrey Memorial Hospital's pediatric emergency department is seeing about 100 more cases daily than it did last year. (Kiran Singh/CBC - image credit)

An emergency physician at Surrey Memorial Hospital says the hospital's pediatric ER is reaching its breaking point as children and their families pour in seeking help.

Dr. Randeep Gill says the hospital's pediatric ER was built for 72 patients a day but is seeing around 250, 100 more than last year, pushing staff and infrastructure beyond their limits.

"We are the busiest pediatric department in the province," said Gill. "We're definitely well over our capacity."

Health centres across Canada have been experiencing a surge in admissions of children, according to Children's Healthcare Canada, much of that linked to mounting cases of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, influenza and RSV.

Some families have reported waiting 11 hours at an ER to see a doctor.

On Wednesday, B.C. Children's Hospital activated its emergency overflow, a triage system to manage the volume of patients with respiratory illnesses.

If needed, the province says it will cancel hospital surgeries to make room for patients with severe respiratory illness.

According to the BCCDC's respiratory diseases platform, since Sept. 4, testing has detected 1,413 cases of entero/rhinovirus, 771 cases of Influenza, 390 cases of RSV and 539 cases classified as other.

Justine Boulin/CBC
Justine Boulin/CBC

Doctor calls for increased funding

While the surge in cases has highlighted the frailty of the system at Surrey Memorial, Gill says severe underfunding, including of the pediatric ward, is the root cause.

He says the ward only has 16 funded beds while there were 24 in 2001, leading to patients having to be transferred to other hospitals around B.C., in particular, B.C. Children's Hospital.

Surrey is the fastest-growing city in B.C., but Gill says there needs to be more planning and funding to keep up with that growth.

"We're already over capacity in the situation right now. Where are we headed," asked Gill.

"We don't have the capacity to take care of these children."

Confluence of respiratory illnesses

Dr. Craig Murray, regional medical director for emergency departments at Fraser Health, says the pressure felt at Surrey Memorial is similar to the experience of emergency rooms across the country.

"It's really the same story at all emergency [departments]," said Murray.

Physicians prepare for a boom in respiratory illnesses every winter, but Murray says this year has been especially challenging because many of those viruses arrived at the same time.

It also follows pandemic precautions like physical distancing and mask-wearing that resulted in a reduction in cases over the last two years. Now that those precautions have been lifted, there are greater opportunities for people to be exposed to viruses.

To top it off, Murray says the provincial shortage of family doctors is also leading to higher visits to emergency rooms.

He recognizes that Surrey Memorial's pediatric emergency ward is being stretched thin but says these were all factors that were unpredictable when the department was first built.

"There's always room to look to the future and build bigger departments, but the reality is we deal we what we have right now, and we are doing everything we can to find the right space for patients," said Murray.

When it comes to capacity, Murray says he's confident Fraser Health "can look after pediatric patients and their families."