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Monday, December 05, 2022

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In less than two months of 2022, Alberta Health Services (AHS) had to post 32 notices of no physician coverage or other service disruptions in several rural Alberta healthcare facilities.

According to the AHS website’s News Archive page, there were approximately 70 notices of no physician coverage or other service disruptions in 2021 and seven in 2020.

In 2019, with the exception of several calls for volunteers, notices of a few facilities affected due to construction and a four-day closure notice of the Rocky Mountain House Heliport, there were no releases from AHS notifying of physician shortages.

President of the United Nurses of Alberta Heather Smith told the Western Standard The shortage doesn’t only affect physicians in Alberta, but has also been an issue for nurses.

“These health human resources have been a concern for some time,” said Smith.

Smith said the shortages were noted before the COVID-19 pandemic began and was likely tied to when “the UCP declared war on doctors in 2019.”

“Not to mention declaring war on nurses in January 2020 and then war on all public servants for that matter,” said Smith.

Tensions between physicians and the provincial government came to a head in February 2020 when Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced the government had ripped up its funding contract with doctors.

The government said it would bring changes in to reduce healthcare costs across the province including cutting doctors’ fees, after saying they were the highest paid in Canada.

In late 2019, AHS also announced it was cutting hundreds of nursing positions across the province.

The letter sent to UNA’s director of labor relations said it planned to eliminate about 500 full-time equivalent positions over three years.

“When the government diminishes the value of people’s contributions, people leave,” said Smith, adding, “We’re dealing with an unappreciated workforce.”

Smith said under the UNA’s Workplace Processes, nurses are able to submit Professional Responsibility reports where any number of concerns can be reported.

In 2020 and 2021, Smith said the union saw three times the number of concerns over staffing shortages than all grievances in those years.

“We brought these issues to the government and they were ignored,” said Smith.

Smith said she sees it as a global recruitment issue.

“AHS brought in a bunch of travel nurses late in 2021 who make about two times more than Alberta nurses,” said Smith.

Frustrated at seeing these travel nurses making more per hour, Smith said many Alberta nurses decided to leave and do the same, “so we lost nurses to that.”

“Instead of insulting the medical workers, what the government needs to do is focus on retaining their workforce,” said Smith.

“We need the federal government and the provincial governments to work towards a national strategy and instead of poaching personnel from other jurisdictions and countries, we need to grow our own nurses, doctors and paramedics.

“The government needs to invest in financial support and training to address our health human resources crisis from healthcare aides to physicians.”

In late January 2022, a new collective agreement was ratified, which runs from April 2020 to the end of March 2024, was reached between the UNA and AHS, Covenant Health, Lamont Health Care and The Bethany Group.

Some items in the new agreement include a 4.25% pay increase over the life of the agreement, a 1% lump sum payment for 2021 in recognition of pandemic coverage by nurses and a $7.5 million dollar Rural Capacity Investment Fund to invest in recruitment and retention strategies in rural and remote areas of Alberta.

AHS told the Western Standard it is experiencing a recruitment challenge across the province and said it is not just an Alberta issue, but “communities across North America are experiencing recruitment challenges, particularly outside of main urban centres.”

“There have been no reductions or delays in surgeries or other procedures at any site, no impact on access to emergency care, and no reductions in available acute care beds as a result of the Immunization or Testing of Workers for COVID-19 policy,” said AHS in a statement.

“Contingency plans are in place as needed to ensure continuous service, including assigning additional staff.”

AHS said, “No physicians or healthcare staff have been prevented from working due to their immunization status,” adding testing has been an option for unimmunized workers, at their own expense.

“AHS has a dedicated team in place focused on implementing solutions to support recruitment of healthcare professionals, including physicians and nurses,” said the statement.

“To get a broader understanding of recruitment and retention issues, Critical Staffing Task Forces have been established in Central and North Zones to identify staffing shortages, vacancy trends, and issues that may impact staffing, as well as identify and implement creative recruitment and staffing solutions “

“AHS’ goal is always to keep sites operating as normal, and to ensure that all patients receive safe care.”

AHS said the following solutions are underway:

  • Posting part-time positions, to provide additional flexibility to staff and physicians to support family and communities
  • Aggressively pursuing both Canadian and internationally-trained physicians;
  • Closely reviewing the local workforce in areas of need, providing incentives for full-time activity and reviewing retirement and succession plans with local medical leaders;
  • Reassessing current locum experience for recruitment opportunities, and easing administrative burdens;
  • Increasing collaboration between Zone clinical departments, and exploring rotation models from urban zones;
  • Working to support flexible roles and scope of practice within AHS, if this increases availability;
  • Exploring alternate models for care;
  • Enhancing recruitment efforts through enhanced marketing efforts;
  • Consulting with post-graduate medical education (PGME) programs to enable work experience in non-urban facilities, increasing the number of training positions, and exploring options for funding sponsored positions in PGME; and
  • Exploring options to improve the international sponsorship program.

List of news released from Jan. 1 – Feb. 23, 2022.

Feb. 23

Beaverlodge Municipal Hospital Emergency Department will be temporarily without on-site physician coverage Feb. 23 – Feb. 24 at 8 am

Feb. 22

Temporary closure of Milk River emergency department overnight Feb. 22 – 23 due to no on-site physician coverage.

Feb. 21

The Sylvan Lake Advanced Ambulatory Care Service will be temporarily closed on Feb. 22 due to a gap in physician coverage. Normal hours will resume Feb. 23.

Temporary emergency department closure at Lacombe Hospital and Care Center overnight Feb. 21 – 22 due to a gap in physician coverage.

Feb. 18

No physician coverage in Wabasca-Desmarais Healthcare Center emergency department from Feb. 18 – 22, due to no on-site physician coverage.

Feb. 14

Notice of emergency department closures in Cold Lake due to inability to secure physician coverage overnight Feb. 14-15 and Feb. 16-17.

No physician coverage in Barrhead Healthcare Center Emergency Department for 12-hour period Feb. 14-15.

Feb. 11

Swan Hills emergency department will be closed Feb. 9, 10, 14 and 18 due to physician vacancies and an inability to secure locum coverage.

Feb. 7

No Physician coverage for Sacred Heart CHC ED for 24 hours Feb 8 – emergency department will be without on-site physician coverage.

No physician coverage in local emergency department for two 24 hour periods in Wabasca-Desmarias Health Care Center — temporarily without on-site physician coverage.

Emergency department temporarily closed at Consort Hospital and Care Center without physician coverage Feb. 7, 8, 10 and 11. The ED is closed to patients during normal operating hours during these dates.

Feb. 4

Daysland emergency department implementing reduced hours beginning Feb. 7. Residents needing emergency department services after 6 pm can access service in Camrose (42 km away) or at the Killam Health Care Center (31 km away).

Feb. 1

Cold Lake emergency department closure overnight Feb. 1 and 2 due to the ability to secure physician coverage.

AHS calls for volunteers in the South Zone.

Jan. 31

Swan Hill emergency department closures Feb. 1 – 18 due to physician vacancies and an ability to secure locum coverage. Patients requiring emergency services will be re-routed to Westlock (118 km away), Whitecourt (80 km away) or Slave Lake (116 km away).

Jan. 28

Cold Lake – due to the inability to secure physician coverage, the Cold Lake Healthcare Center emergency department will be without on-site physician coverage overnight Jan. 28 and 29.

Jan. 26

Sacred Heart Community Health Center’s emergency department will be without on-site physician coverage for 24 hours from 7 am Jan. 27 to 7 am Jan. 28. EMS calls will be re-routed to High Prairie 50 km away.

Sylvan Lake Advanced Ambulatory Care Service will be temporarily closed on Jan 26 due to a sudden gap in physician coverage. This is a temporary measure taken as a last resort as all avenues to secure physician coverage has been exhausted.

Jan. 25

Due to the inability to secure physician coverage the Cold Lake Healthcare Center emergency department will be without on-site physician coverage overnight Jan. 25 and 26.

No Physician coverage in Barrhead Healthcare Center emergency department Jan. 25 for 12 hours. EMS will be re-routed to Westlock (41 km away) or Whitecourt (99 km away).

Jan. 20

AHS calls for volunteers at Milk River Health Center

AHS calls for volunteers at Raymond Health Center

AHS calls for volunteers at Cardston Health Center

Jan.19

Sylvan Lake Advanced Ambulatory Care Service temporarily closed during the day Jan. 20. This is a temporary measure taken as a last resort, as all avenues to secure physician coverage has been exhausted.

Consort Hospital and Care Center emergency department will remain closed temporarily until Jan. 24. The closure was initiated on Jan. 13 due to staffing challenges related to a COVID-19 outbreak in the site’s long-term care unit.

Jan. 17

No physician coverage in the Sacred Heart Community Health Center emergency department for 48 hours Jan. 18 and 19. EMS will be re-routed to High Prairie (50 km away).

Jan. 14

Rocky Mountain House Health Center will be temporarily unable to provide obstetrical services from Jan. 14 until 8 am Jan. 17. Patients will be redirected to Red Deer. This is due to staff illnesses impacting staffing levels.

No physician coverage in Fairview Health Complex emergency department overnight Jan. 14-15.

No physician coverage in Cold Lake Healthcare Center emergency department for varying periods Jan. 14-18.

Jan. 13

Consort Hospital emergency department temporarily closed beginning Jan. 13 due to staffing challenges.

Jan. 11

No physician coverage in Sacred Heart Community Health Center emergency department for a 24-hour period Dec. 12-13.

Jan. 8

No physician coverage in Cold Lake emergency department for 8-hour and 16-hour periods. Jan. 9 – 14.

Jan. 7

No physician coverage Wabasca-Desmarais Health Care Center emergency department for seven days Jan. 7-15.

Jan. 6

No physician at Swan Hills Healthcare Center including in the emergency department Jan. 6 – 7.

No physician coverage in Fairview Health Complex emergency department overnight Jan. 6 – 7.

No physician coverage in Wabasca-Desmarais Healthcare Center emergency department for 19-hours Jan. 6 – 7. Patients will be re-routed to Slave Lake (122 km away) or Athabasca (175 km away).

The Western Standard contacted the Alberta Medical Association for comment but did not receive a reply in time for publishing.

Melanie Risdon is a reporter with the Western Standard
[email protected]

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