The NWT’s largest hospital is no closer to resolving a problem with sterilization equipment that has delayed dozens of surgeries over the past three months.
In the legislature on Tuesday, health minister Julie Green admitted there was a “need to address the big backlog” of surgeries building up, but even sending people elsewhere for surgery is proving tricky.
Alberta – beset by healthcare issues of its own, including wildcat strikes, the planned loss of 11,000 jobs, and a spike in Covid-19 cases – can’t provide surgeries any faster than the NWT, Green said. Inuvik’s hospital is considered a solution for some surgeries, but not all.
Stanton’s problem lies in devices used to sterilize instruments between surgeries. All three of the hospital’s sterilizer devices have been malfunctioning since late July, leaving behind moisture that could attract bacteria over time.
That in turn means sterile surgical instruments can’t be stockpiled, severely limiting their supply.
Though the hospital has had some success sterilizing smaller instruments, larger ones are still coming out with moisture. As a result, the impact is disproportionately being felt by patients waiting for larger surgeries like hip replacements.
Urgent and emergency surgeries are still happening, but well over 100 other surgeries have not been able to go ahead. That’s putting pressure on schedules for future months, into which more surgeries must now be crammed – assuming the problem is fixed.
“It’s not as if there are no surgeries taking place. It’s just that some surgeries which require larger instruments are not taking place,” Green told the legislature, responding to questions from Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly.
Sending people to Alberta was “unfortunately no longer an option,” the minister continued, “because surgeries for Albertans are also being cancelled for a variety of reasons, including a surge in Covid cases.”
Instead, said Green, staff at Stanton will soon “perform an experiment” by sending some surgical equipment to Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre, Alberta’s largest hospital.
There, Alberta staff will try to sterilize the NWT’s equipment. That should help the territory uncover whether the surgical instruments themselves or the territory’s sterilizer devices are the issue.
Uncertainty for patients
Green said even specialist repair staff sent to the Northwest Territories to fix the problem had been unable to do so.
O’Reilly had earlier asked whether the territory couldn’t simply acquire more sterilizer devices, a solution not immediately addressed by the minister.
“A big part of the problem is the uncertainty for people waiting,” he said.
“There doesn’t seem to be a solution anywhere in the future.”
Green acknowledged that was the case as she committed to updating the health authority’s website every two weeks with the latest information.
“There will be a letter going to all of the patients awaiting surgery at Stanton this week, so they can have an update,” Green said.
“In the meantime, if they are having pain management issues – and I know that’s very common with leg and hip surgeries – they should continue to be in touch with their healthcare provider to have treatment, and that can also be done virtually if people are housebound.
“We need to tell people when this is going to be resolved. Unfortunately, there is no specific date. They are working on it very diligently.”