Increasing wait times at urban hospitals are delaying treatments for patients transferred by Pincher Creek Emergency Services’ ambulance crews and tying up paramedics, PCES Chief Pat Neumann told Shootin’ the Breeze.
Neumann said PCES crews have long experienced these delays at Calgary hospitals, especially at Foothills Medical Centre, which Neumann said handles most of the cardiac emergencies, advanced heart treatments and diagnostics, and complex traumas within Alberta Health Services’ south zone.
But similar bottlenecks have hit the Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge, which also takes routine and emergency patients from Pincher Creek and surrounding areas, and where Neumann said PCES crews have consistently reported emergency room delays since last summer.
“Lethbridge is terrible now” for wait times, Neumann said.
“It’s to a point where, unless they actually are admitting the patient to the ER right away, (PCES crews) are typically waiting every time they go now.”
A return trip to Calgary will tie up a PCES ambulance crew for at least five hours, with crews spending at least three hours on trips to and from Lethbridge, the chief explained.
The department has two ambulances. When one has to travel to and from Calgary or Lethbridge, “That only leaves one ambulance in this community to do any other urgent transfers going out of this area, or to respond to any other emergency call,” Neumann said.
Longer waits are the norm when urban hospitals increasingly provide routine treatment and diagnostics for rural patients. At the same time, Neumann said his crews now attend calls from town residents struggling to access primary care.
“We’re picking people up that are going to the (Pincher Creek) Health Centre because they don’t have a doctor. They don’t know what else to do to get the services they need.”
Patients are showing up at the health centre sicker than they might have been if they’d had regular care from a family doctor, and the problem “compounds itself” as the hospital’s doctors and nurses scramble to fill the gap, Neumann explained.
Six doctors now work at the health centre and its attached medical clinic, down from 11 several years ago, according to the clinic’s executive director, Jeff Brockmann. (Dr. Gavin Parker manages the health centre’s ER.)
Local ambulance calls have more than doubled since Neumann started at PCES roughly 20 years ago, with hospital transfers up by a similar margin. Crews that responded to just under 750 calls in 2005 were handling over 1,500 in 2018. Transfers meanwhile climbed from around 350 to just over 600 in the same period, according to PCES statistics.
The town’s population held at around 3,700 for much of that time, but shrank to around 3,400 by 2021, according to the Government of Alberta’s online regional dashboard.
Just over 25 per cent of residents are 65 or older — a slight proportional increase over 2016, according to Statistics Canada’s 2021 census. As Neumann suggested, the town isn’t getting bigger — it’s getting older.
In response, Health Minister Jason Copping said the Alberta government is investing in rural health care.
Copping said at a media roundtable Monday that the province had put up $1 million to explore options to train doctors at the University of Lethbridge and nearby Northwestern Polytechnic.
“We recognize that we need to train and hire locally, and by getting those seats out in rural Alberta, the more likely that (graduating doctors) are going to stay,” he said.
Copping stressed that Alberta’s United Conservative Party provided many more millions in budget 2022, including the UCP’s new collective agreement with Alberta’s doctors.
The province further hopes to attract foreign doctors by “leveraging immigration.” Seventeen doctors from outside Canada have agreed to work in Lethbridge, with some already working there.
“I can tell you more is coming.… So, stay tuned,” Copping said.