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An older woman clutches her hand to her chest in pain
Research + Innovation

A Providence-wide, pain-reducing revolution

by Kris Wallace


The Providence Breast Centre (PBC) at Mount Saint Joseph Hospital treats 20% of BC’s breast cancer patients.

Each year, we perform 1,200 breast cancer surgeries, more than any other facility in the province. We’re also home to one of the busiest post-mastectomy breast reconstruction programs in Canada. When COVID-19 hit, the PBC team worried about their patients getting the safe and timely care they needed.

During surgery, patients have to be sedated under general anesthesia. While unconscious, anesthesiologists insert a breathing tube to support the patient’s breathing. Early in the pandemic, it became clear that this procedure could spread aerosol droplets increasing the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for everyone in the operating room.

When this threatened to delay essential breast surgeries, the anesthesiology team fast-tracked an innovative technique that doesn’t require general anesthesia: peripheral nerve block.

Blocking pain was just the beginning

With a peripheral nerve block, the doctor injects local anesthetic (like the kind your dentist gives you before a filling) near a specific nerve, or bundle of nerves. At PBC, injecting the anesthetic into a patient’s back and chest successfully numbs the entire breast area.

With this new technique, patients don’t have to be put to sleep. As a result, they recover more quickly, experience fewer post-op complications, and leave the hospital sooner.

In the words of one grateful patient, “I was really impressed. I was comfortable and awake immediately following my surgery. And I was able to go home about an hour later!”

Because local anesthesia is so much faster and safer to administer than general anesthesia, the Breast Centre team was able to perform more surgeries: a win-win for the PBC team and their patients.

Earlier this year, the PBC team behind the Regional Anesthesia Nerve Block Program won the Providence Health Care 2022 “Best Patient Safety and Quality Award” for this innovation in patient-centred care. Listen to the team share their story.

Transforming pain management across Providence

But wait! There’s more to this story.

Peripheral nerve blocks have sparked a pain-reducing revolution right across Providence.

Until recently, only a handful of anesthesiologists were trained to deliver nerve blocks. With the realization that this technique could speed up treatment and lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission, teams moved into action to train more physicians at other Providence sites.

Now, dozens of doctors at PBC and across Providence are using peripheral nerve blocks. One example is in the busy emergency department at St. Paul’s Hospital where it’s helping the 300+ patients a year who arrive with painful broken hips while they wait for surgery. Another is the cardiac care unit as a replacement for problematic opioids following heart surgery.

That’s the hallmark of innovation at Providence: One bright idea that can change the lives of so many.

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