Opening of new Surrey hospital begs question: when will St. Paul’s renewal options be released?

The good news that Surrey Memorial Hospital’s $512 million new critical care tower is now open begs two questions: when will the best options for renewal of St. Paul’s Hospital finally be laid on the table? And will they create a new facility on par with Surrey’s?

Premier Christy Clark promised up to $500 million for the long-awaited St. Paul’s renewal in a surprise announcement June 12, 2012, in the run-up to a possible snap election that was not called. A revised concept plan was promised for this year.

Providence Health Care has had a preliminary concept plan ready since 2010, a complex $512 million proposal (in 2010 dollars) to protect heritage buildings, seismically upgrade obsolete buildings, and create a new ambulatory care centre on the existing site. This would somehow all be accomplished while continuing to deliver quality tertiary care in the region’s only truly “downtown” hospital.

It’s hard not to worry that this “renewal project” may complete long-overdue seismic and maintenance work, but not bring St. Paul’s, a vital link in the provincial health care system, into the 21st century. The hospital needed more than $17 million in 2011 just to replace wiring and failing elevators.

The strong and understandable focus on St. Paul’s in the West End sometimes obscures the fact that St. Paul’s has provincial significance. Although 19 percent of emergency department visits originated in the West End in 2010, 20 percent came from the Downtown Eastside and 29 percent from “the rest of BC.” (The rest came from elsewhere in the city and one percent were homeless or had no address.)

The hospital provides BC’s only heart transplant program and has the largest and busiest cardiac care programs in Canada.

Yet until the 2010 concept plan was released, physicians at St. Paul’s were worried that the hospital’s key programs could even be dismantled and shipped to other cities, like Surrey, where up-to-date, purpose-built facilities could be provided.

In 2009, Council unanimously endorsed a motion I proposed to commit the city “to work with all stakeholders, especially Providence Health Care, the Provincial Government and St. Paul’s Hospital” to move renewal forward.

The Surrey project highlights just how much a new building can deliver when architects and builders are free to innovate: dramatic improvements in infection control, a state-of-the-art emergency department, superior working conditions for staff and, most of all, vastly improved patient care facilities that are much easier to update. Add in the new $237 million Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre and redevelopment in New Westminster at Royal Columbian and it’s clear the Fraser Health Authority is modernizing and expanding in an aggressive way, as it should.

Would those improvements be possible at St. Paul’s? In 2012 and 2013, the buildings are receiving a further $91 million in upgrades just to keep functioning. (Update: that number may cover more years than stated in the fact sheet.)

What would it take to create a new facility on par with Surrey’s? Or even with the Pattison Tower at VGH, first constructed in the 1980s?

The revised concept plan for St. Paul’s was promised for this year, but is still nowhere in site, a fact which has NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert fuming. (Providence began looking for architects in February.)

Given its history and the critical services it delivers, St. Paul’s Hospital needs to be able to deliver the best possible care to patients. It’s time to hear from those in charge the best strategy to accomplish that goal.