Tim Hortons doubles as an ER

With an overflowing emergency room and surrounding hallways, staff at Royal Columbian Hospital turned to the adjacent Tim Hortons cafeteria as a space to treat patients Monday night.

David Plug, director of public affairs for Fraser Health, said the RCH's emergency ward was experiencing a busier than normal night and set up six stretchers with medical equipment and privacy screens in the dining area for three hours.

"The doctors and nurses had to deal with congestion and prepare for potentially more so they went to a non-clinical area," Plug said. "We do have plans so that if there is a significant accident or emergency, the emergency department can expand into non-clinical areas. This was an unusual one. This is not a designated overflow area for day-to-day use."

Plug said the impromptu treatment area was only used by four patients for a total time of one-and-a-half hours. He said some patients commented that it was a better environment for treatment than an open area or hallway where there is more noise and less privacy.

"Ideally we'd like to have them in the emergency department," he said. "This was the next-best option."

Plug said the dining area had been cleaned before patients were transferred there and no infectious diseases were present.

Asked if the patients were put-off about being treated in the same place they might order a double-double, Plug said the response from patients was not entirely positive.

"Certainly, opposed to a corridor or other non-clinical area, it got some more attention and comments," he said. "The situation is not ideal, but we thank them for their patience and understanding and our doctors and nurses worked really hard to make sure they got safe and appropriate care," he said.

Overcrowding at RCH's emergency room has been endemic over the years, prompting frustration from ER doctors and staff. Fraser Health has been working on the conceptual phase of an expansion and redevelopment for the hospital but Plug said it is too soon to suggest a timeline for the project.

"We hope to get it to a level of detail where we can submit it and get approval from the government to proceed. That would be a big improvement for health care in our region," he said. "It is our top-most priority but it is dependent upon the completion of the proposal and government approvals."

Plug said he hopes the appointment of a new health minister will lead to some new direction from the province on the proposed project.

New Westminster MLA and interim provincial New Democrat Party leader Dawn Black said the incident highlights Premier-designate Christy Clark's need to live up campaign promises of putting families first, and rethink health care spending in the province.

"Having patients at the Royal Columbian Hospital treated at Tim Hortons shows the degree to which our health care has declined under 10 years of B.C. Liberals. And now (Clark) wants to bring in changes that could result in a further $750 million cut," Black said in a press release. "Ms. Clark has talked a good line on putting families first; now it's time for her to show she meant it. It's incumbent upon her to tell patients who rely on Royal Columbian what action she intends to take."

Meanwhile, NDP health critic and Surrey-Greeen Timbers MLA Sue Hammell linked the Tim Hortons incident to Clark's previous decisions in the B.C. Liberal cabinet.

"This is a new low, caused by systemic problems due to repeated mistakes and broken promises by the B.C. Liberals," Hammell said. "This goes back to the closure of St. Mary's Hospital, which resulted in patients being diverted to Royal Columbian. And it goes back to the B.C. Liberals' 2001 broken election promise to create 5,000 additional long-term care spaces."

Peter Julian, New Democrat member of Parliament for Burnaby-New Westminster, said overcrowding incidents like Monday night's were both predictable and preventable.

"We said seven years ago when they moved to close St. Mary's Hospital that it would put an untenable amount of pressure onto our health-care system in New Westminster, and I think we've clearly reached a breaking point when a Tim Hortons has to be used as part of the emergency ward," he said. "At what point do we start to invest the funds that need to be invested into our health-care system rather than throwing our money away on corporate tax cuts at the federal and provincial level?"

New Westminster-Coquitlam MP Fin Donnelly raised the issue in Parliament during question period Tuesday, calling it "absurd."

© Brent Richter, The Record