December 1, 2023

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Alberta election: High River doctors raise concerns over shortages in rural health care

A group of doctors working in the High River Hospital is speaking out on a staffing shortage they feel will result in urgent care closures in the community.

The hope for the physicians, who penned an open letter highlighting their concerns, is to get the attention of the parties vying to form Alberta’s next government.

According to Alex Fay, one of the doctors behind the open letter, the community has lost a quarter of its physicians over the last three years due to retirement, burnout, and relocation to other provinces.

Those vacancies have left “significant gaps” in the ability to cover care in the emergency department and the in-patient ward.

“Because of those losses in physicians over the last number of years, we haven’t been able to fill those gaps in the same sort of way,” Fay told Global News. “We’ve come very close to closing our emergency department on a few different occasions.”

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There is also a shortage of family physicians in High River, exacerbated by the staffing challenges in the local hospitals, Fay said.

In turn, more people are seeking care typically treated by a family doctor at urgent care at the High River Hospital.

“We’ve been seeing an uptick of more and more folks accessing our emergency department who are showing up with simple complaints or needing prescription refills,” Fay said.

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The issue made its way to High River town council earlier this week, where local physicians provided an update on the situation to councillors and the mayor in the hopes of advocating for a solution.

“As a council we have a big voice and I’m never afraid to use that,” High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass told Global News. “When I see issues like this, that are coming from our provincial government, but you’re screwing with our town.”

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Among the issues highlighted include recruiting family physicians to the community, as well as a lack of graduates studying family and primary care.

“High River has traditionally been a very sought-after rural community for family medicine,” Fay said. “We’ve been struggling to get anyone to set down roots here in the last three-plus years.”

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Fay added the relationship between government and physicians in the province “has been significantly strained for a number of years, and it’s never been mended.”

In a statement to Global News, Alberta Health Services said recruitment of physicians in rural areas is a challenge across the country.

“Recruitment challenges, particularly with physicians in areas outside of main urban centres, are not unique to Alberta and are being experienced nationally and internationally,” the statement said. “AHS has a dedicated team in place focused on implementing solutions to support recruitment efforts across the province.”

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Given the provincial election is in its second week, Snodgrass said he is seeking commitments from the parties to address the issue.

“We need direct commitment from whoever the government is that takes office,” Snodgrass said. “We need to hear from every single party that’s involved in this thing as to what your plan is and I want to hear a verbal commitment as to how you value our doctors.”

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In response to Global News’ question on the issue, UCP Leader Danielle Smith said an “innovative” approach is needed to address primary care challenges.

Smith said AHS administrator Dr. John Cowell has been looking into expanding hours at primary care to alleviate the pressure from hospitals as well as using nurse practitioners to help fill gaps in family care.

“I think what you’ll see in the future is a lot more team practices so that doctors are able to do the high value work at hospitals and specialties,” Smith said.

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“But the team practices will allow for the nurse practitioners, LPNs, physiotherapists, dieticians, psychologists and other health professionals to be able to make sure every person is able to have the care that they need.”

Smith also pointed to the $2-billion investment into primary care in the 2023 provincial budget.

Kevin Van Tighem, the NDP candidate in Livingston-McLeod, said his party is committed to improving the quality of health care and the recruitment of rural physicians.

Van Tighem highlighted an NDP commitment to establish 40 new family health clinics made up of multiple disciplines of health care staff with funding to hire more allied health professionals.

He also said the party would work with universities to promote health care as an option for students in rural areas.

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“We need to move the practice and training of medicine closer to rural communities,” Van Tighem told Global News. “We need to look in those rural communities for our future doctors and nurses because they’re the ones that will stay.”

The doctors in High River are hoping for a solution soon, with the potential for eight to 12-hour closures of urgent care as soon as next year, which would require patients to travel nearly an hour to the next nearest hospital.

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