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Rural Alberta facing physician staff shortages, hospital bed closures

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EDMONTON -

Staff shortages across rural Alberta are resulting in hospital and bed closures, a trend the union representing healthcare professionals believe is concerning and unsustainable.

On Friday, Alberta Health Services (AHS) closed 12 more hospital beds at Lacombe’s only hospital, including palliative and acute care beds, after failing to fill staff vacancies.

At least 18 other AHS hospitals and care centres – including Fairview, Rocky Mountain House, Consort, and Elk Point – have been forced to reduce service levels since Jan. 1.

Some AHS hospitals have had multiple physician shortages or emergency department closures since June 1, including the Boyle Healthcare Centre Emergency Department, which has had five temporary emergency department closures or physician coverage shortages in that time period.

While rural Alberta has faced the majority of closures or service disruptions, even Edmonton’s largest hospital, the Royal Alexandra Hospital, faced bed closures.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) believes rural healthcare is “in peril” as healthcare staff continue to be worked “ragged.”

Bonnie Gostola, the AUPE vice-president representing healthcare professionals across the province, told CTV News Edmonton that these problems started well before the COVID-19 pandemic and that the situation has only worsened.

“We’ve worked a year and a half of hell,” she said.

“Many of them just can’t face the work loads anymore. They’re actually putting their retirement notices in or they’re leaving the province.”

Gostola says that the fear of cuts to healthcare and AHS post-pandemic is also keeping new potential hires from joining the workforce.

“It’s basically the future threat,” she described. “As soon as the pandemic is over, the jobs will go.

“Who’s going to want to come into an industry where you’re already short.”

James Wood, with AHS media relations, said in a statement that the goal is always to keep sites operating as normal.

“There are times when a lack of physician availability has caused some Emergency Departments to temporarily close for a short period,” Wood said. “AHS works hard to ensure local residents continue to have access to the care they need during these times.”

Whenever service is disrupted, Wood said nursing staff remain on site to provide triage and referrals to patients to alternate hospitals or emergency departments in surrounding communities.

“AHS continues to aggressively recruit physicians for rural areas,” he added.

Steve Buick, press secretary to the minister of health, told CTV News Edmonton in a statement that interruptions in service are not a new problem and that they occurred under the NDP government as well.

"The pandemic has reduced the availability of physicians and staff due to illness, quarantine, (and) keeping kids home from school," he said.

"We'll see fewer service disruptions as the impact of the pandemic passes. In fact just this past week, AHS confirmed five beds at Elk Point Healthcare Centre which were temporarily closed on June 7 as a result of staff shortages reopened July 7." 

 

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Ryan Harding 

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