Alberta ERs and urgent care departments have been without doctors more than 50 times this year, records show

Dr. Parker Vandermeer says he has never been so exhausted as requests from across Alberta for him to staff rural emergency departments continue to mount.

“I’m more exhausted than I’ve ever been,” he said.

CBC News analysis shows why this might be the case.

So far this year, Alberta Health Services has posted at least 52 Press Releases warn the public that emergency rooms and urgent care centers in Alberta were closed or relied solely on nursing staff because there was no doctor available.

It’s just a constant leak. There is always more work to do. We always seem to be losing additional resources.– Dr. Parker Vandermeer

CBC News was only able to find about 50 similar reviews posted on the AHS website for the past year. AHS spokesman James Wood said that in small communities, the sudden absence of a single doctor due to illness or other causes can lead to “inevitable” emergency room closures.

Some of this year’s closures have lasted several days at a time, and they all involve communities outside of Calgary and Edmonton.

Dr. Parker Vandermeer is a locum physician who works in emergency departments across the province. (Submitted by Parker Vandermeer)

While rural communities have struggled with staff in the past, reliance on these types of closures was rare, said Vandermeer, who works shifts across the province, including Lethbridge and Spirit River.

“I always feel like I hit rock bottom, until the next month. And I look back and I’m like, ‘Man, life was good back then.’ It’s just a constant drain. There’s always more work to do. We always seem to be wasting extra resources.

Over the past six months, Vandermeer says he’s noticed the requests he receives have changed — from requests for work of one or two days to more than 20 days.

And when communities can’t find anyone to fill these gaps, they sometimes have to go without an emergency doctor.

“I think for a lot of people – especially those who are a bit older or have more health issues, who are potentially more likely to need the hospital – it causes a lot of anxiety,” he said. Vandermeer said.

“A lot of these communities, it’s maybe the only hospital for 100, 150 kilometres. So not being able to go to that one could potentially mean that a 30-minute ride to a hospital turns into a two hour drive, which in an emergency could be life or death.”

“Our health care is not as important”

Consort, Alberta is a community that has seen multiple emergency room closures throughout 2022.

Sandra Kelts, executive director of the Acadia Foundation, which runs senior living centers in Consort, Hanna and Oyen, said she felt “let down” by the closures, which redirect people to emergency services from surrounding communities, some of which are half an hour away.

“If people live in the city and have to drive half an hour to go to the hospital, they would be outraged. But that’s fine with us, or we feel like second-class citizens. Our health care is not as important,” she added. mentioned.

And she says some seniors who have lived in a community all their lives have had to leave because they can’t get the care they need.

“We travel at least 30 minutes on the highway in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, to go to an emergency. And then once there, if they go by ambulance, how do they get home ?”

Forced to change where they live

People, especially the elderly, are leaving their communities because medical care is not readily available to them, said Dr. Vesta Michelle Warren, president of the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) and a physician in Sundre, Alta.

“They’re being forced to potentially have to change where they live in order to get the health care they need to maintain their health. So that’s a big impact on the community. It’s a big impact on the patients and their families,” she said. mentioned.

Dr. Vesta Michelle Warren is president of the Alberta Medical Association and a physician in Sundre, Alberta. (Submitted by the Alberta Medical Association)

The reason it’s hard to fill those positions is because there are fewer doctors in the province overall, Warren said.

Physicians move to other provinces, retire or change the way they practice. Many are exhausted after working in healthcare for two years of the pandemic and cannot carry on with the increased workload that comes with it.

Losses in small communities

Wood of AHS said when an emergency department closes, plans are in place to support the community in the event of a medical emergency, and there has never been more a handful of emergency department closures at a time, typically one or two out of every 103 hospitals.

“We will continue to work with the provincial government and local partners to recruit doctors and staff to rural communities, and hope to continue to reduce the impact on hospitals as we move through the most disruptive phase of the pandemic.

Alberta Health spokesman Steve Buick said the pandemic has impacted health care across Canada, including community physician practices, especially in smaller communities, where recruitment and retention of healthcare professionals has been a long-standing challenge.

He said the province is working to increase its supply of doctors, especially in rural areas, by spending $90 million a year on rural retention and recruitment, and working with the AMA to cope with the pressure on medical practices.