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Doctors describe 'crumbling' health system as Alberta bolsters recruitment efforts

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With intensive-care capacity in Alberta hospitals nearing capacity and emergency room wait times hitting double-digits hours, doctors are sounding the alarm that the province's health system is failing and will only get worse as the respiratory virus season progresses.

Alberta ICUs are at 92 per cent capacity with 206 patients in care, a number last reached in December last year.

The average ICU capacity number since November 2022 is 81 per cent, an average of 182 patients. Occupancy has been climbing steadily over the last four weeks, from 78 per cent on Oct. 24 to 92 per cent on Nov. 21.

When presented with the latest ICU and ER statistics, Health Minister Adrianna LaGrange told CTV News Edmonton she is in constant contact with Alberta Health Services and is monitoring the situation closely.

"Right now, we do have capacity, and they are able to shift capacity as it is needed, but we obviously need to keep a very close eye on it," LaGrange said, adding the province has the beds, staff and equipment to increase surge capacity if needed.

The increase in ICU and ER numbers comes as doctors across Alberta share concerns about the state of the province's hospital system.

Dr. Steven Fisher, an ER physician at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in central Edmonton, said the situation is the worst he's seen and considers it "a disaster."

"I've been practicing in the emergency (room) for 15 years, and I don't remember a time where consistently — day to day, week to week for this stretch of time — that we've literally just shown up to work every day and looked around and been like, 'This is bad,'" Fisher told CTV News. "It feels like the system is crumbling right around us. I know all of my colleagues and nurses and all the other staff that we work with in the emergency, we're just tired of seeing how bad things are right now. And it feels like in the past, we might have small stretches of this or a day at a time, but now, it just seems all of the time, every day, every shift."

In rural Alberta, a lack of family doctors is having an impact on service in emergency rooms, says Dr. Parker Vandermeer, who works in hospitals across the province.

"In particular, I find it's been extremely challenging as more and more Albertans seem to lack a family physician, which makes my job in the hospital a lot harder because there are many things that are best done under the care of a family physician that are best done in the community and are best done over time rather than all in one go through the emergency department," Vandermeer told CTV News.

"That's a vital tool for the care of people that we have essentially lost over the past few years, and I would say continues to get worse, in my experience."

LaGrange said the province continues to recruit new doctors to the province through its workforce strategy and that 255 of them, including 109 family physicians, have registered to work in Alberta over the last four months.

"We really have to look at how we can strengthen primary care, because of course, the more that we can strengthen our primary care system, we keep people out of hospitals. We will keep people well," LaGrange said.

"It all has to work together."

She said part of the effort to attract more doctors to Alberta are the recent changes to the health system announced by the province that will break Alberta Health Services, the single entity responsible for providing health care in the province, into four distinct units.

"I would say I think it's exciting times," LaGrange said. "I hear from a lot of physicians and nurses on the ground that are actually saying, 'I'm excited about the changes because I see the potential for something different to happen.' We can unlock innovation, we can unlock the ability to provide services to Albertans in a different manner because what's been happening thus far is not working."

Those efforts include allowing health-care professionals to "be able to practise to their full scope" said LaGrange, who announced Wednesday nurse practitioners can start opening their own clinics in the province next year.

"Strengthening the team in terms of nurse practitioners, physicians and pharmacists ... I think strengthening that team will certainly attract more people."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Kyra Markov

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