Delays of more than a year to see an eye surgeon could be reduced after Northern Health confirmed it is recruiting a second ophthalmologist to northwest B.C.
Optometrists say appointments with the region’s only eye surgeon, Terrace-based Dr. Thomas Nagy, are currently backed up until May 2017.
Earlier this year Smithers optometrists raised concerns about long delays for patients after Dr. Nagy had to go on medical leave for several months.
Waiting times for consultations were already longer than one year before his absence.
FYidoctors Smithers optometrist Dr. Barry Lester said at the time patients were being sent to the Prince George hospital emergency room to access an on-call ophthalmologist.
Local physicians were also being forced to treat conditions that were beyond their expertise, he said.
Northern Health is currently looking for a second ophthalmologist to join Dr. Nagy, who is returning to work in Terrace.
“We are currently recruiting another ophthalmologist to Terrace to help increase capacity, something we know is important with an aging population,” said spokesperson Jonathon Dyck.
“We are confident that we will be able to recruit in a timely manner, and will update the community as information becomes available.”
Dyck said work was also underway to increase operating room space for ophthalmologists at the Prince George Surgical Centre, where cataract surgery delays are also long.
“This is the first time we have done this in the Northern Health region, although it is a common practice in other health authorities,” said Dyck.
“We recognize that the ophthalmologists in Prince George have varying wait times and that finding additional support to deliver this service will help improve access to care.
“It is our hope to have the service up and running by the fall.”
Dr. Lester said the recruitment of a second eye surgeon in Terrace was a step in the right direction but more increases to the service would be needed to meet future demand.
“It will make a difference, I think it will lighten that load but that load is not going to go down,” said Dr. Lester.
“The reality is we are an older population with more eye disease so we need to be upscaling anyway.”
He predicted it would take about a year after the new ophthalmologist started work before waiting times were reduced.
In the meantime, Dr. Lester predicted patients who could afford it would travel for a consultation in Vancouver, where he said wait times were as low as two months.
“I think what you’re going to find is people are going to say ‘I’m not going to wait that long I’m going to go somewhere else’ and so the people who can afford to will travel and the people who can’t will just have to wait two years, which is tough,” he said.
Prince Rupert optometrist Dr. Michael Barlow said his patients were also travelling to Vancouver if they could afford it.
He estimated the cost of travel and private surgery was between $3,000 and $4,000.
Dr. Barlow is part of a push to establish a second surgery centre at the hospital in Prince Rupert.
With an extra $280,000 worth of equipment to enable cataract surgeries, he said the hospital could host three locus ophthalmologists for a few days every month.
Northern Health said it planned to continue cataract surgeries in Terrace.
“As with any service, we will review the need and availability of services to determine if it can be expanded,” he said.
“We work on a regional model, and at this time ophthalmological services are available in Terrace, Prince George, and Fort St. John.
“A regional approach also helps with the sustainability of the service.”