Alberta town says lack of family doctors prompted healthcare crisis

More people are having a hard time finding a family doctor in Alberta and the situation is so dire that a town west of Edmonton has declared a local health-care crisis.

Doctors and towns are asking the Alberta government for help to keep clinics staffed and reduce paperwork.

Hinton Mayor Nicholas Nissen says last year, nearly half of the town’s doctors left, mostly due to retirement. He the situation is at a “critical breaking point.”

“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,” Nissen said.

Garth Griffiths, chair of the Hinton Healthcare Foundation, says the town is paying half a million dollars to keep the lights on at the town’s private physician clinic for the next two years.

The 10,000 people town west of Edmonton typically has 15 physicians.

“Now, there’s only seven or eight doctors and of course, the costs are just so high, if you divide that by the amount of doctors we have, they just can’t afford to do it,” Griffiths said.

Griffiths is defending the town’s reputation, saying all it needs from the province is some help.

“Hinton has been well known for its medical records too — we’ve always had good doctors and we have a great hospital,” he said. “We’re getting branded like it’s a horrible place and it isn’t.”

Alberta Health Service says no physician will be on site in the emergency department of the Hinton Healthcare Centre overnight from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. on June 25-27 and June 30.

A statement from the Ministry of Health says it is hiring for Hinton, with one doctor on the way, and five more being interviewed.

“What’s happened in Hinton is we just hit the demographic,” Nissen said. “We had the retirements that were always going to happen, and it caused a situation where we simply don’t have enough physicians working in the community to sustain the system. And this for me this is a crisis.

“I have not had a family physician in the past nine years. All we are doing is stating the facts, sounding the alarm and we are doing it for two reasons. First is to communicate with our own residents in the community, so that they understand that we’re in a situation that’s not business as usual. The second is to let other rural communities know that it is OK to ask for help.”

Dr. Noel Dacunha, president of the Alberta College of Family Physicians, says while the money helps, family doctors are bogged down by paperwork.

“An average family physician probably spends an extra 15 to 20 hours a week just going through some of the extra stuff they do in addition to their day-to-day of looking after patients,” he explained. “It leads many of them to leave family practice because of all the accessory stuff they have to do apart from the important duties of looking after patients.”

“This health-care crisis just states how desperate a lot of our rural communities are trying to recruit and retain their health-care workers,” added Dr. Paul Parks, president of the Alberta Medical Association (AMA). “This is unfortunate and we will see more municipalities cry out for help. It is difficult to have a healthy, vibrant, rural community if you don’t have access to health care. We have created an excellent Alberta advantage funding program that will ensure physicians come to Alberta and that could get us a long way.”

The Alberta government says it is giving an additional $57 million to family doctors to help with just that. In a statement, Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange says 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.

Griffiths says the town’s healthcare foundation is hoping to meet with LaGrange.

“It’s a situation that we have to deal with, that we are short of medical people in Hinton, but I think every town in Alberta is short of people too,” he said.


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