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Local physician says new programs are needed to retain specialists at Red Deer hospital

‘More physicians have left than are being replaced:’ Dr. Kym Jim
Recruitment continues for Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, but a local physician believes program expansions are needed to attract specialists. (Advocate file photo.)

Alberta Health Services says it’s recruited 91 physicians to Central Zone in the last year, and has also filled 18 positions in the Red Deer hospital emergency department.

While acknowledging some recruitment has been done, Dr. Kym Jim, a local physician with the Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta, said the net balance hasn’t yet been restored at Red Deer hospital: “More physicians left than are being replaced.”

He wishes AHS would address the root problems that caused so many health care staff to move or retire.

The “tremendous infrastructure deficit” at the hospital is supposed to be solved over the next decade with a building expansion expected to wrap up by 2031. But more must done now to keep physicians and nurses at the hospital in the interim, said Jim.

He urged immediately starting-up more support programs for various medical specialties, including the long-awaited cardiac catheterization lab, as well as a cardiac rehab. These could be launched off-site until the hospital expansion is competed, said Jim.

He would also like to see similar new programs for the pulmonary/respiratory department and others as he feels this would help AHS recruit medical candidates. Otherwise, a new specialist will think, “what is my future here if I can’t get the OR time and there is no (other) anesthesiologist? Why come here?”

Jim noted local surgeons and anesthesiologists have for years been asking AHS for the same on-call supports as their counterparts already have in Calgary and Edmonton so they can maintain a better work-life balance. These calls went unheeded, contributing to the exodus that AHS is now struggling to fill, he added.

Kerry Williamson, spokesperson for Alberta Health Services, stated in an email this week that AHS continues to do all it can to enhance health care services in Red Deer, including recruiting 91 physicians to Central Zone in the last year, and working to support the hospital’s surgical program.

“We ended the general surgery diversion earlier this year after recruiting key staff… We are not currently planning to divert any surgery patients and we’ll keep doing everything we can to avoid it,” he stated.

Nine out of the existing 11 operating rooms at the hospital are now running with available staffing and anesthesiology, he said, and efforts continue to fill ongoing vacancies.

So far, one new anesthesiologist was recruited with another six in various stages of assessments and credentialing, said Williamson. “We anticipate more new anesthesiologists will be here within the next year.”

Meanwhile, six new clinical assistants were hired in anesthesiology. AHS is also providing opportunities for general practitioners with training and experience in anesthesia, said Williamson.

A head hunter is trying to recruit more international medical graduates, and AHS has implemented an income guarantee for anesthesiologists. Williamson said the OR schedule is also being reworked to help reduce night time on-call levels, and signing bonuses and reimbursement for relocation are being provided.

As well, AHS is looking into whether Red Deer hospital could be one of the sites for training anesthesia residents from Calgary and Edmonton.

With the addition of a second nurse educator to assist with new staff orientations, “we continue to actively recruit, using multiple strategies, within the province, nationally and internationally,” added Williamson. This includes working with post-secondary institutions to provide practicum students.

Among staff shortages at the hospital are nurses who are “stretched too thin,” said Jim. “The staff we have in Red Deer are exceptional but there are just not enough resources.”

Williamson said 18 positions in the emergency department have been filled since July, and AHS is in the process of filling a further 14 for both RNs and LPNs in the department where patient waits have occasionally hit 18 hours.

“We continue to work diligently to ensure all our patients receive the care they need, when they need it,” he added.

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