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New cardiac unit will be a quantum leap for patients in the north

New patient care and surgical tower at UHNBC in planning stage
A new patient care/surgical tower in in the works for University Hospital of Northern B.C. The concept plan for the $600-700 million project, announced in September, was approved in the province's 10-year capital plan.

Six months have gone by since the province approved a concept plan to build a new patient care/surgical tower in Prince George at University Hospital of Northern B.C.

The announcement of the $600-700 million project was made on Sept. 21, the day before the NDP government called the fall election.

The next step is to finalize a business plan, which could be complete as early as this September or as late as March 2022. Once that has been approved the procurement stage will follow to award the building contracts before construction will begin.

“It’s in the 10-year capital plan, there’s money associated with the project, it’s going ahead,” said Health Minister Adrian Dix on Friday, the day the province announced the designer of a $116 project to replace Stuart Lake Hospital in Fort St. James. “No project ever approved at concept plan stage has ever not gone ahead.”

The tower project at UHNBC will include new surgical suites, a cardiac care centre and a mental health and addictions treatment unit. It will replace out-of-date infrastructure built when the original Prince George Regional Hospital opened in 1958.

“It’s unbelievably exciting for Prince George,” said Dix. “It’s going to be a few years into the future of course, before it’s all happening. But it’s going ahead. We’re building something that’s got to be there for 50 years in an area like health care, which is going to be different 50 years from now in terms of care.

“The project in Prince George is critically important because of the increasing role that hospital has played in the care of people across the north. It’s a real success story because we have a fairly massive capital plan now, so getting that extra project through all the approvals and the funding attached to it was something I’m proud of. People in the area, whatever their political bent, want to see this project go ahead so I was really proud to announce it.”

As health minister, Dix first toured the UHNBC surgical area during the summer wildfires in 2017 when the city became a receiving centre for evacuees from the region. He said the new cardiac unit will be a quantum leap for patients in the Northern Health region who have to travel to Kelowna or Vancouver to get the care they need.

UHNBC is unable to provide invasive procedures such as angioplasty to relieve blood vessel blockages and lacks space for its cardiac diagnostics services which are dispersed at various locations in the building. The new surgery unit will modernize operating rooms which will help increase surgical capacity, but Dix said some major heart interventions will still require patients to travel to Vancouver.

“Building a surgical tower is going to make everything more efficient and it’s necessary because the operating rooms date from another era of operating and their time has passed,” said Dix. “For many kinds of care having a cardiac care centre will make a difference there. The idea is to provide care closer to home.

“One of the challenges in health care in the last 20 years has been a growing centralization of care, which is not all bad because it’s meant a growing specialization and effectiveness of that care. It’s meant that it has to be done in specialty centres and Prince George will be one of those centres in terms of cardiac care.”

UHNBC, a referring hospital which receives and cares for the sickest, most seriously injured patients in the Northern Health region, lacks have the ability to land patients arriving by helicopter. Prince George is the only major city in the province which does not have a hospital helipad. At the time the new tower facility was announced in September there was no mention of a rooftop helipad being incorporated into the design to facilitate rapid transfers of medevac patients to the hospital. The B.C. Ambulance Service helicopter brought in to service the Prince George area last fall has to land at the airport and patients are then transferred by ground ambulance to UHNBC.

“The helipad is one of the things we’re working on in the business plan stage,” said Dix. “What’s practical, what is it going to look like, what are the detail requirements, obviously that’s something we’d be looking at in that stage.”  

Hospitals built during the 1950s era were not designed to treat patients with mental health illnesses or substance addictions and Dix says the UHNBC addition will address that with a design that will incorporate brighter, more cheerful treatment areas and living spaces that will encourage better patient outcomes.

“Our mental health wards have a not-in-the-best-way old-school look to them, from the time they were built,” said Dix. “So in all our new hospitals one of the areas most transformed is mental health and addictions care because the old (buildings) have a bit of confinement feel to them.”

Three other hospital projects are in the works for northern B.C.

Construction is expected to begin this year on the new Dawson Creek and District Hospital, a $378 million project expected to be completed in 2025.

In Terrace, a $447.5 million replacement for Mills Memorial Hospital in in the procurement stage, following business plan approval in May 2019.

At G.R. Baker Memorial Hospital in Quesnel, construction began in October to build a new emergency department and intensive care unit. That $27 million improvement is slated to be finished before summer.

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