Alberta hates rural maternity care
I have been working as a rural physician for 16 years. My focus and my expertise has been surrounding maternity care and, to that end, I have worked as a low-risk maternity provider and a provider of rural surgery primarily to provide access to rural maternity care. I’ve been on numerous boards and committees to try to address access to labour and delivery services close to home.
Unfortunately, none of these have been successful to prevent the ongoing death of rural labour and delivery services.
Most heartbreaking to me, I no longer can support ongoing labour and delivery in my own community of Pincher Creek beyond May 31.
Perhaps this is just the sentiment of modern thought – we can no longer as a society accept the risk inherent in providing medical assistance to people who live outside of city limits. In order to access that quality of care you deserve you must live in communities where mail is delivered to street addresses instead of box numbers.
I don’t know for sure whether all Albertans despise rural maternity care, there seem to be quite a few that prefer the personal nature of it. I don’t even know whether it is purely a maternity care thing, or if we really hate all rural medical care.
I don’t want to generalize, but this could even be a Canadian thing: rural care appears to be disappearing across the country. What is clear to me, is that when there is a question on whether to support rural maternity care, they always decide against.
The barriers to excellent rural maternity care are many:
Due to risk, or lack of role-models, many family physicians have decided that maternity care, labour and delivery is an optional skill. There was a time when we counted it as a required skill to work here. It is not trained well in many programs, and low-risk maternity groups are often poorly supported.
Rurally, there is no on-call funding to be available for delivery services. When advanced skills are needed for c-section and for neonatal resuscitation, the team size expands to at least four physicians and an army of allied health workers, such as RNs, LPNs and respiratory therapists, as well as the many lab and imaging technicians, EMS and other support staff working in the background.
We are down to six physicians from 11 to serve a patient population of 10,000, and our emergency department has only become more busy.
I have had the joy of working with many dedicated caregivers who attend when they are needed, even when not on-call. This care costs significantly.
However, often forgotten is that when these services are not in place, the costs increase greatly due to emergency transportation, delivery en-route, increased NICU admissions, and emergency deliveries at a rural facility not set up for labour management in training or equipment.
We already have managed high risk maternity patients beyond the scope of our site who were unable to get to a higher level hospital and we could no longer transport. This will continue to happen with even fewer resources. These harms are borne unevenly by those who don’t have the resources to access care.
Gaps in the availability of this team impacts maternity before and after care as decisions are made based on when services may not be available.
As a cost saving method, our hospital site manager will not provide OR or maternity nursing coverage when anesthesia or surgery is scheduled to be away. This creates further gaps as it blocks partial days or a day that later could be covered by changes to vacation plans or finding last-minute locum coverage.
There is no dedicated maternity nurse, which means each time a maternity patient arrives there is a scramble to see who is available, and a sense of frustration at the lack of staff availability, and that maternity coverage is considered additional work instead of being appropriately planned for with adequate staffing.
More distressing, where I used to look forward to labour and delivery, now I have apprehension about whether I have the time or support to provide good care.
Despite all these challenges, our goal has always been to provide as much coverage as possible to ensure the best care for our maternity patients.
As the lone surgeon in Pincher Creek for the last five years, I have been on surgical call 24/7, barring scheduled time off.
Management at AHS has noticed, and for reasons of well-being and safety have indicated they will cease paying me for on-call days past a certain number each year. I agree with the sentiment, this isn’t a reasonable call burden, and there are times I suffer more burnout than I care to admit.
I hear about how much they are spending to pay for the many locum obstetricians in Lethbridge, when we have been asking for support the last six years. They have not, instead, found additional coverage for surgery in Pincher Creek, or encouraged physicians to work here who have undergone my level of training, or even called to see how I’m coping with the call demands.
These steps might have a real impact on physician well-being. I don’t count my call by number of days, but by my kids’ volleyball games I’ve missed, family events I’ve not attended, robotics teams I haven’t coached, and the number of maternity patients transferred on my wife’s birthday when I was out of town.
Alberta does not have a training program for advanced skills for family physicians. Once we have been trained to perform various procedures and surgeries, specialist physicians in the cities decide which of our procedures they don’t want us to do. This is called privileging.
Being declined privileges has a real impact on applying to work in other regions. There has not been a surgeon privileged in Pincher Creek to provide all the skills they trained for in the last 12 years, myself included, and this may have impacted other surgeons choosing not to stay.
Despite decisions being made in regional centres, there is not a reciprocal responsibility to provide support for the rural sites. Many models of creating a network of care have been suggested over the last several years.
At its best this would create a seamless transition between rural sites and the referral centres, and a cohesive team of professionals from both rural and central facilities who could support at-risk rural sites with education, training, and perhaps even call coverage. All of them have collapsed without funding.
So where is the leadership? Well, it changes frequently. Some new manager in a new role, with no memory of the prior issues, is surprised I’m not ecstatic when they have a new “Pathway Through Privileging.”
I’ve continued to ask for a statement from AHS – “We support rural maternity care.” It has never come from any level of its bloated bureaucracy.
There is no doubt that government has a role to play, and I won’t lessen the negative impact the last four years have had on rural physician supply. However, this is not a partisan issue. The reality is, rural health care does not matter to politicians. Rural votes are counted as won before the polls open and no one feels they need to pay anything except lip service to improvement of rural medical care.
It’s not just that labour and delivery is special to me in particular, it is emblematic of how we care for vulnerable people in our society. It should be an equalizer, we all were once born; but the care women get is divided sharply along socioeconomic lines. In order to provide this care well, you need a dedicated team of people working within a well-supported system.
Despite our dedication, we do not have that support. Most times, a rural maternity program collapses after a bad outcome where the lack of support results in finger-pointing to deliver blame. Often providers leave the profession. I can shoulder the work, and the call, but I can’t face the injury to my colleagues if I keep it going when I don’t believe any help is coming.
Each person who could have some positive impact doesn’t feel it is their responsibility to help.
If I were a younger man, I might be looking for greener pastures. I may yet look for other rural programs I can support for a little longer, but I intend to remain planted in Pincher Creek for now and I still have many other surgical skills that will remain useful.
I know what happens to communities who end their maternity programs though, as they lose the need for a cohesive team to come together to celebrate new life and in doing so gain a little joy in a job well done.
Jared Van Bussel MD CCFP ESS FRRMS
Pincher Creek, AB
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