Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Keith Wolstenholme fears 30 to 40 per cent fewer scheduled surgeries will be done at Red Deer hospital this summer because of the loss of four local anesthesiologists.
It’s already a “desperate” situation for many people who are in chronic pain and are having to wait two or more years for a knee or hip replacement, said Wolstenholme.
“Almost every day I get people calling to ask when their surgery will be, and I have to tell them it’s not going to be weeks, it’s going to be months and months coming,” he added.
Alberta Health Services stated on Thursday that it’s “aggressively” recruiting for more anesthesiologists, and is working to come up with various strategies so that patients will not be impacted.
According to AHS, these vacancies are not expected to immediately impact the surgical program at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.
“And we hope to hire additional anesthesiologists in the coming months.”
Wolstenholme, who’s responsible for scheduling surgeries at the hospital for 11 orthopedic surgeons, hopes the hiring can happen soon because he’s seeing the window for surgical bookings narrow.
“There will be a significant slowdown this summer,” he predicts, unless a viable solution is found.
Among other strategies, AHS is looking at bringing Edmonton and Calgary anesthesiologists on a temporary basis to help fill the void.
“That would be a great short-term solution,” said the surgeon, but can’t work in the longer run.
Wolstenholme believes the problem is multi-fold: On top of a nation-wide shortage of anesthesiologists, some of the local specialists who anesthetize patients before surgery are approaching retirement age. Some have left the city, he said, while others have abandoned Alberta because of the recent dispute between physicians and the provincial government.
But the main factor, according to Wolstenholme, is the dissatisfaction felt over the lack of operating rooms at Red Deer hospital and the provincial government’s reluctance to begin a long-awaited facility expansion.
“The biggest issue is the chronic under-investment in this hospital, considering the size of our catchment area and patient population.”
He said the hospital’s eight ORs could be reduced to five when the full impact of the departing anesthesiologists is felt this summer.
The hospital could actually use 16 operating rooms, considering how many central Albertans are awaiting scheduled surgeries, added Wolstenholme.
If Red Deer had more functioning operating rooms, it would be able to draw more anesthesiologists. And a bigger pool would mean they wouldn’t have to be on 24-hour call every six days, thereby improving their working conditions and quality of life, he reasoned.
“It’s OK to work for 24-hours straight every sixth day when you are in your 20s, but not when you are in your 40s, 50s, or 60s,” added the surgeon.
Alberta Health Services stated in an email that four positions for anesthesiologists have already been posted “or are in various stages of recruitment,” with an additional position to be posted this month.
Red Deer currently has 11.8 full-time equivalent and five part-time anesthesiologists. AHS states that two, who are currently working part-time, will be moving to full-time hours this summer.
AHS is also exploring “alternate models for anesthesia care.” A process is in place to call in temporary locum physicians to cover vacancies in the schedule — which has been done before, states AHS.
Alberta Health Services maintains it “continues working closely with our medical teams to support surgeries at RDRHC, and improve access for patients.”
Meanwhile, Wolstenholme is finding it “disheartening” that some patients are so sick of waiting for a surgical time they have asked him for a referral to another surgeon — outside of Red Deer.
He makes this referral if they insist, but tells them “I don’t think that shuffling patients around is the answer.” He prefers they write to their MLAs about the situation.