Local leaders are encouraging residents to write letters to provincial politicians about their concerns with recent and proposed cuts to Alberta’s doctors as well as the general state of rural healthcare.
At the meeting Rural Health Care: Under Siege meeting, a dozen doctors from Bonnyville, Cold Lake, Lac La Biche, and St. Paul covered a range of concerns including doctor shortages putting undue pressure on the current physicians through on-call shifts and emergency room rotations, doctor burnout, mental health concerns for health practitioners, and more.
The fear is that already long wait times to see a doctor will get longer as physicians move out of rural practices to urban centres to escape some of those concerns.
It’s been described as the final straw for many physicians.
“I’ve said it that this is not a new problem,” said Reeve Greg Sawchuk on The Morning After.
“This is probably the culmination of about a heap of problems. And so for 10 years or so, successive governments, we have seen a downturn in the amount or quality of healthcare that’s available to the rurals.”
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, extra emphasis is being put on health care across Alberta and the country.
In Bonnyville, however, baby deliveries will soon be moved out of town to Cold Lake or St. Paul starting in May if nothing changes.
“There is a doctor awaiting assessment, which could come in. We don’t know, we haven’t been given a date or time as to when that assessment is going to take place. But in the meantime, as of May, if nothing else changes, yeah, deliveries will be pushed towards Cold Lake or St. Paul,” said Sawchuk.
The meeting saw over a hundred people gather to listen to the doctors and hear about the decreasing quality of health care they could see if this new deal is pushed through.
“Over the last 14 years, I think we’re only up one doctor overall in Cold Kake and people got appreciate it’s so hard to get doctors to want to come to rural Alberta,” Cold Lake mayor Craig Copeland.
“And what you want to do is you want the doctors that are here in our communities, you want to invest in them, you want them to stay here, you want them to have a family and buy a house and be part of the community and they feel that they’ve been slighted out onto the negotiations.”
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There is a fear that these changes could hurt doctor recruitment even more.
Dr. Henrik Van Watt, Bonyville physician estimated that there are 11 open positions in the Lakeland region alone, with 40 vacancies in communities north of Edmonton.
Some of the positions have never had applicants.
A Lac La Biche physician described how five doctors all decided to leave at the same time due to the working conditions and said that the obstetrics position has never had an applicant since they left.
Plus, the current test that allows doctors to practice in Canada has made changes that they say is making it even more difficult to get physicians into the country.
“At this point in time, we’re not getting any applicants. If any other positions decide to leave, they will be irreplaceable. It took us five years to replace four positions.
“If the government thinks we’re being paid so well, why is it we can’t get one applicant to apply for a position.”
Dr. Hester Gordon, St. Paul, thinks these cuts could have major consequences in the town, including clinics closing.
“To say this is a money problem is ludicrous. These guys are going to close their clinics because they can’t afford it anymore. Your compensation and compassion can only go so far,” she said.
Dr. Nicole Cardinal, St. Paul, believes these cuts could also result in more barriers for First Nations people accessing health care.
Van der Watt thinks some could be forced to leave.
“None of us want to leave this community, but we may be forced to do so. This uncertainty and the purposed changes are harming our ability to recruit new physicians. Yes, this problem was there before these changes were proposed, but these changes aren’t helping. We can’t afford any more obstacles. When I hear or see something like this, it raises the question for me; is our government thinking about rural Alberta when they decide these things?”
Meeting coming soon
“I had phone calls yesterday from both Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services…they are reaching out to have a meeting with us in the region to talk about the issues because it’s beyond just the doctors,” said Reeve Greg Sawchuk.
“We’re talking about diagnostic services, the number of transfers that we have going down Highway 28, which is the worst highway in the province, but so it’s interesting that now instead of us requesting meetings, they’re requesting a meeting so hopefully we’re gonna make some headway on this.”