Some Northern Alberta hospitals grapple with service disruptions

Provincial government says work is being done while Alberta NDP says not enough action is being taken.

LAKELAND – While the surgery and obstetrics disruption at the St. Therese-St. Paul Healthcare Centre that began on Sept. 9 ended on Oct. 19, staffing shortages remain a challenge at the hospital – and across the province. 

Just three days before one disruption ended, another temporary disruption occurred at the St. Paul hospital. According to Alberta Health Services (AHS), five of the 42 acute care inpatient beds at the hospital were closed effective Oct. 16 and will likely be closed until Jan. 16, 2024. 

“This is a temporary measure to ensure safe and high-quality care for patients, and a quality work environment for staff. AHS continues to look for solutions to address staffing needs. Beds may re-open earlier if staffing levels permit,” stated Logan Clow, senior communications advisor with AHS, in an Oct. 20 statement to Lakeland This Week. Other services at the hospital are not impacted. 

According to Clow, patients will continue to receive high quality and safe care, and the temporary reduction of inpatient beds at health care facilities due to low staffing level is a common practice to ensure quality care is being provided. 

“AHS continues to aggressively recruit healthcare professionals for rural areas. We will continue to update the community about recruitment efforts and thank the community for their understanding during this time,” said Clow. 

In Boyle, another northern Alberta community, 15 out of 15 acute care beds have been unavailable since this summer, with an anticipated end date set for Jan. 4, 2024. The Emergency department also continues to see a reduction in hours due to staffing. 

In Lac La Biche, seven out of 22 acute care beds are unavailable, according to AHS.  

In an Oct. 18 press release, the Government of Alberta announced it would be working to stabilize and strengthen primary health care across the province. 

According to the provincial government, a collaborative effort was launched last fall, bringing together healthcare leaders, Indigenous partners, and experts from both Canada and around the world “to form advisory panels as part of the Modernizing Alberta’s Primary Health Care System (MAPS) initiative.” 

The advisory panels pinpointed short-term, mid-term, and long-term enhancements to fortify Alberta’s primary health care system, being that primary health care is the initial point of contact within the healthcare system. 

Subsequently, the Alberta government is preparing to act on the recommendations presented in the final report to enhance primary health care access, implemented in a phased manner. 

According to information from the province, “Alberta’s government is acting immediately on recommendations to improve primary health care and increase Albertans’ access to the medical care they need,” including the creation of a primary health care division within Alberta Health. 

In addition, $57 million will also be allocated over three years to provide physicians and nurse practitioners support with managing an increasing number of patients. The Alberta government is also working with the Alberta Medical Association to recommend a new payment model for “family physicians that encourages comprehensive primary care.” 

A payment system will also be introduced to support nurse practitioners who want to open their own clinics, take patients, and offer services based on their practice, training and expertise.  

Not impressed 

The Alberta NDP responded to challenges being seen in health care across the province on Oct. 20, criticizing the provincial government, stating that the healthcare crisis in Alberta “has not only remained, but worsened” under Premier Danielle Smith’s leadership, even after the Premier promised to fix health care a year ago. 

Alberta NDP Health Critic for Primary and Rural Care David Shepherd, said the Smith administration is dragging their feet, “announcing yet another task force rather than taking action to support family doctors and expand access to care.” 

Shepherd added the number of Albertans needing a doctor “skyrocketed” while the family physicians taking patients fell by about 700, citing data from the Alberta Medical Association, indicating the number of family doctors accepting new patients decreased to 197 in 2023, compared to 887 in 2020. 

Smith was not sworn in as Premier of Alberta until Oct. 11, 2022. 

Luanne Metz, the NDP’s health critic for emergency and surgical care, also pointed out that multiple municipalities have had no obstetrics care available for extended periods of time, naming Lac La Biche as an example. 

In Lac La Biche, no surgery or c-sections are being done on site. And only low risk obstetrics not requiring c-section back up will proceed. The situation has been ongoing since Feb. 13 of this year. 

Also, not far away, the community of Westlock is also struggle with disruptions in its obstetrics department. Information from AHS states the disruption in obstetric services including c-section has been ongoing since December of 2022 and is anticipated to end Nov. 27.  


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