‘We’re raising the alarm’: Alberta health care staff pen letter as demand for service heightens

EDMONTON — Alberta emergency physicians are challenging claims the province is not facing a hospital bed shortage.

The group accused Alberta Health Services (AHS) CEO Dr. Verna Yiu of “actively and publicly downplay[ing] the significance of bed closures and increasing staffing issues” in a recent letter.

Yiu wrote in a July 31 op-ed published by Postmedia the province was not seeing reductions beyond what was normal during the summer season or expected after 18 months of pandemic response.

“Our system is stable, safe, and available for any patient who needs it. If a patient needs a bed — whether it be in an emergency department, or on a hospital ward — a space will always be available,” Yiu wrote.

But the Alberta Medical Association’s emergency medicine section says the acute care system is stressed to the point that care is being delayed and affected.

“We’re raising the alarm because we see it’s getting worse and we’re really worried we could get to full crisis mode,” the section’s president, Medicine Hat-based Dr. Paul Parks, told CTV News.

“This is getting really bad. We need to make sure government AHS leadership is aware of it so we can start working out some solutions.”

LEADERSHIP AND HOSPITAL STAFF EXPERIENCE DISCONNECT

According to Parks, the system is seeing a 10-to-20 per cent increase over pre-COVID-19 volumes due to Albertans putting off seeking care during the pandemic, increased mental health and addiction illnesses, and increased EMS volumes and pre-hospital services.

That’s exactly the situation at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, seconded emergency doctor Shazma Mithani.

“What I’m experiencing and seeing is certainly not unique. It’s happening everywhere where the patient volumes are higher, the wait times are higher as well, as a result of that, that patients are sicker.”

That, on top of shortages, she said.

“I guess technically there’s no bed shortage. There’s no physical bed shortage. But there’s a staff shortage, which means we have to close some of those beds,” Mithani qualified.

“We always have to remember a bed is not a bed without the people who make that bed, without the staff that make that bed operable. Although, sure, there’s no physical bed shortage, there’s certainly a bed shortage in the sense that we have to close spaces because we don’t have enough space to keep them open safely.”

As of Monday, 98.2 per cent of AHS’ 8,500 acute care beds and 98.6 per cent of its emergency care spaces were open.

On Friday, four operating rooms at the Royal Alex’s Orthopedic Surgery Centre were closed because of “unexpected” physician shortages for post-surgical care, and AHS notified the nurses union its members could be forced to work overtime to address shortages.

For Mithani, the letter represents frustration that upper leadership is downplaying the situation staff are facing every day.

“It is an extraordinary letter, but it is an extraordinary time right now as well,” Mithani noted. “It was shocking to see the big disconnect between what was written in the op-ed and what we were seeing on the front lines.”

AHS REACHING OUT TO HEALTH STAFF, ‘UNDERSTANDS’ PRESSURES FACED BY STAFF

Kerry Williamson, AHS spokesperson, told CTV News in a statement that the op-ed was meant to inform the public that the health care system is ready and accessible.

“The Op-Ed was intended to share information with the public and provide reassurance that the healthcare system remains safe and accessible to all Albertans, recognizing that we have temporary hospital bed reductions occurring at some sites,” Williamson said.

“Temporary hospital bed reductions, particularly in rural sites, have been seen in previous years,” he added. “We continue to work hard to ensure that staff and physicians are supported.”

Williamson said that AHS acknowledges concerns raised in the letter and that it is reaching out directly to physicians that signed to discuss the issues.

“We truly appreciate the contributions of healthcare professionals and the hard work and efforts that they have made during the pandemic and continue to make under current conditions to provide the best care for patients. We are working with our health care teams to manage these pressures.”

ALBERTA NEEDS HEALTH CARE PLAN TO ADDRESS STAFFING PRESSURES: NDP

The official opposition in Alberta is calling on the province to present a plan on properly managing hospital staffing levels and dealing with growing health care system demand.

“There is much more that this government could be doing,” Shepherd said. “But instead, they seemingly put their heads in the sand, declared the pandemic over, and have abdicated their responsibility to lead.

“Meanwhile this fourth wave of COVID-19 has placed greater stress on our frontline health professionals,” he added. “Enough is enough. Albertans deserve more.”

CTV News reached out to Alberta Health for comment.

With files from CTV News Calgary 

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