Following three recent emergency department closures at Pincher Creek Health Centre, area residents are concerned over the facility’s future, something very apparent at an Aug. 15 engagement session with Alberta Health Services.
“It is not our intent to close the hospital,” Dr. Sandra Stover, associate zone medical director for AHS and a palliative care physician from the Beaver Mines area, told the audience of nearly 200.
“It’s our goal (as doctors) to keep the emergency department open,” added Dr. Bev Burton, the community’s acting medical director, when asked to speak to the large gathering.
Acknowledging there have been challenges in the past, Burton said she is hopeful that things will improve.
At the centre of the recent closures: the continuing struggle to recruit new physicians and the challenge to keep them, once here. The lengthy process, which can take up to nine months, even after an agreement is reached, doesn’t help either.
Right now, Pincher Creek is served by five doctors, plus one on maternity leave. In the past, the town has had up to 11.
“Some of the delay is the recruitment process but some of it is through the College of Physicians. It’s simply a lack of people who can mentor or sponsor,” Stover said.
Staffing shortages and ER closures aren’t isolated to just the southwest, or even Alberta. This can create hardship for families in rural communities where the next hospital is an hour or more away and, for some, the additional challenge of getting there is very real.
“What happened? We came out of Covid and all of sudden there are no doctors,” said Edna Fairbrother, a member of Piikani Nation.
Getting in to see a doctor, for Fairbrother, was never a problem until recently.
“We need to find some solutions because it’s not just Pincher Creek. It’s my community as well,” she said.
“Retaining physicians is even more important than recruiting them,” Dr. Stover said, following the meeting.
“We can always recruit a physician but it’s harder retaining one. People want to have a long relationship with their doctor,” Stover said.
“We have a great relationship with the town and MD. They’ve even set up their own committee.”
With an aging population, good health care is a big pillar of any community and several times during the course of the evening, AHS officials recognized the large turnout.
“We can see the community here is very concerned about their health care and rightly so,” Stover said. “After all, they have a big stake in it.”
While obstacles remain in recruiting and retaining physicians, the news on the evening wasn’t all bad. In fact, there might be some promise.
A new physician assistant is set to begin in September to fill a small part of the current gap. Negotiations are also underway with three international medical graduates, one of whom could be practising in the community by the spring of next year.