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Alberta town loses half its family doctors, declares health-care crisis

A patient has their blood pressure taken at a medical clinic. (CTV News Edmonton) A patient has their blood pressure taken at a medical clinic. (CTV News Edmonton)
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A west-central Alberta community has declared a local health-care crisis to try to bolster its sagging numbers of family doctors.

Hinton Mayor Nicholas Nissen told CTV News Edmonton on Friday the town of 10,000 has lost about half of its primary care physicians over the last year to retirement, leaving "half of the town" without one.

Six family doctors now work in Hinton, not all of them full-time. Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nissen said 15 doctors worked full-time in the town 270 kilometres west of Edmonton.

Nissen said town council found out at the end of April that Hinton was "in danger of losing (its) health-care clinic" because of the lack of physicians, who unlike many of their counterparts in urban centres, work in the local hospital and in other settings besides their primary care clinic.

"We've hit the demographic cliff," Nissen said.

"We've gotten a little bit lopsided in our physician numbers, and it's caused a situation where we're losing access to primary care. When you lose access to primary care in this country, you're losing a lot of access to the health-care system because your family doctor is your gateway in."

A charitable organization is poised to temporarily take over administration of the primary care clinic in the town.

According to the minutes from Hinton council's meeting on Tuesday, the Hinton Healthcare Foundation has asked for $500,000 annually for the next two years "to assist in stabilizing primary healthcare as well as attracting and retaining primary healthcare providers in the community" after the town this week formally declared a state of emergency.

"We're sounding the alarm we are saying, 'We need help. This is no longer business as usual,'" Nissen said.

"We are in a health-care crisis. Over half our community has lost access to care in the past year. That is, to me, the definition of a crisis."

The declaration does not grant Hinton town council any additional powers. Instead, Nissen is hoping it will get attention and support from the province.

In a statement, Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said she is working to address rural health issues.

"This includes more rural medical training opportunities, an updated physician compensation model to encourage the best and brightest to practice in Alberta and expanded scope for nurse practitioners to be able to provide primary care with government compensation," LaGrange said in the statement.

The minister says she has recruited one doctor to the town and is working to recruit five more. 

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