Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly has raised alarm over months-long issues with sterilizing equipment at Stanton Territorial Hospital but Health Minister Julie Green said she does not know when the problems will be resolved.
Speaking in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday, O’Reilly said the sterilization problem “about to enter its fourth month” and resulting cancellation of elective surgeries mean “day after day of misery for patients awaiting surgery” for hip-joint procedures.
“I don’t think it’s an over simplification to say that I have heard of no comparable situation at other hospitals in Canada. We can’t get this right and does it mean that we will never have reliable sterilization at Stanton?” he asked.
Problems with the sterilization process were first reported by the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority (NTHSSA) in July. “Wet packs” were found in the process, an occurrence where moisture is visible after medical instruments for surgeries are sterilized using steam and heat.
“Wet packs” are rejected by medical device reprocessing specialists and are put back into the sterilization queue. Even though the NTHSSA said no improperly sanitized tools were used on patients, the hospital began in July to cancel some surgeries.
The problems remained unresolved in August, when 54 elective surgeries were cancelled. An equipment vendor representative was brought to the hospital for assistance and specialists from other parts of Canada were consulted to help with water mineralization issues in the sterilization.
The NTHSSA said in an update in September that the issues had still not been fully resolved and that 124 elective or non-urgent surgeries had been cancelled.
In its most recent update on Oct. 5, the authority said a “final resolution” of the wet packs has yet to be reached.
O’Reilly explained that the efforts at fixing the problem, such as varying the instrument wraps and adjusting the machines and steam production “basically sounds like a big experiment.”
Health Minister Julie Green said in response to O’Reilly that the health authorities are working diligently to resolve the problems but “unfortunately there is no specific date” when they will be finally resolved.
Green pointed out that some surgeries that require larger instruments haven’t taken place, but that 200 surgeries have been completed since July and that 23 of the 124 procedures that were cancelled at the end of July had also been completed.
“There is a need, of course, to address this big backlog,” said Green.
One option the health authorities are exploring is sending patients to Inuvik Regional Hospital for their surgeries. Another is sending the surgical instruments elsewhere for processing.
“They are going to perform an experiment in the coming week by sending surgical equipment to the Foothills Hospital in Calgary to see whether the sterilization works in that facility so that they can identify whether the problem is with the instruments themselves or whether there still remains a problem with the sterilization machine,” Green said.
In the meantime, a letter would be sent this week to patients awaiting surgery at Stanton with an update on the situation and online updates every two weeks would inform the public about progress in fixing the sterilization problems.
Patients experiencing pain, which Green said is common when it comes to leg and hip surgeries, should stay in touch with their health-care provider to receive appropriate treatment.
The possibility of sending patients to Alberta for their surgeries could be affected by health care privatization contemplated in the province, strikes by health-care workers and a surge in Covid cases, Green said.
“Those are factors which will mean that there are fewer surgeries available to Northerners rather than more,” she said. “Those are really issues that are beyond our control. They have been helpful in helping us to validate the sterilization in their own machines, but as for sending people there, that seems like a more difficult proposition. To be perfectly honest, those people I know who are waiting for hip replacements and other major surgery are not very keen to go to Edmonton for surgery at this point.”
NTHSSA spokesperson David Maguire said a public update on efforts to resolve the problems would be issued on Thursday.