Dr. Alex Nataros found an ally Friday in his battle against Island Health.
B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau stood next to a group of health care professionals, including Nataros at a Victoria news conference designed to draw attention to the frustration being felt by health workers in the North Island and across the province over their working conditions and lack of support from management.
The provincial health system finds itself in a crisis, yet health care workers do not feel valued, she said.
“We need to focus on the health and well-being of British Columbians and to achieve that, we need to ensure that the health and well-being of doctors and health care professionals is also being taken care of,” she said. “I’m asking health minister Adrian Dix to acknowledge and recognize systemic work place issues that are in our health care system.”
Nataros, who had travelled from Port Hardy to attend the news conference, has been a vocal critic of the provincial health care system generally and Island Health specifically, having called for the resignation of Island Health’s chief medical officer Dr. Ben Williams.
Island Health recently suspended Nataros’ emergency room privileges and launched an investigation after having received a patient complaint. Both Dix and Williams have publicly said Nataros’ suspension had nothing to do with his call for Williams’ resignation.
Furstenau said she did not have enough information to weigh in on the details of the investigation against Nataros, who faces a hearing next week, but questioned the public nature of Island Health’s response.
“If somebody that I had in my employment said something that I didn’t like and that instigated an investigation, I would then not go public and say, ‘there is an investigation, but I have already made my mind up about the outcome of that investigation,’” she said.
Nataros has been an advocate for a community that has been “deeply under-served” by the health care system and the focus should lie on making sure that Port Hardy residents receive the best possible care, she added. Port Hardy has grappled with emergency room closures and Nataros has warned that the pending departure of two physicians this summer will leave the community dangerously short of physicians.
Nataros said Williams’ comments undermined his ability to provide patient care and described them as the “double-speak” of a health care administrator in damage-control mode. “It doesn’t reflect the clinical realities of what we do on the North Island,” he said.
As to the broader picture, Furstenau cited various documents showing dissatisfaction among health care workers.
“A leaked Island Health employee satisfaction survey was damning,” she said Tuesday. “Of the 11,000 staff who responded, less than half felt satisfied with their management. Worst of all, (the) overwhelming perception was that Island Health does not care about their well-being.”
She also cited a 2022 report from Doctors of BC that Island Health physicians have the lowest satisfaction with their health authority in the province, adding it’s been declining year-over-year.
“Doctors speaking out about their serious concerns about patient safety are threatened, punished and silenced,” she said. Island Health isn’t just punishing doctors, though. They’re punishing entire communities. The patients who are going without care are the ones who the minister must be accountable to.”
Nataros also used the occasion to repeat his call for allowing physician assistants to work in provincial health care, adding that they have proven themselves in places where they are allowed.
The only person who seems to be against them is Dix, he added.
Nataros Friday also announced plans to start a not-for-profit community health centre in Port Hardy with colleagues and Furstenau repeated calls for the government to shift toward a community-health-centre model. She also agreed with Nataros about allowing physician assistants.
Dix has not closed the door of allowing physician assistants, but also tempered expectations.
Dix also said government has put $30 million toward improving health care on northern Vancouver Island while moving toward a new payment system for doctors, which will improve compensation while allowing them to focus on patient care.
“We always have to do better,” he said Tuesday. “We always have to work harder with staff people. We always have to work harder with our teams to make sure that they’re involved in decisions, but I have confidence in Island Health to do so.”