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‘Everybody has a stake in this’: Patient care at Red Deer hospital is declining and can’t wait eight years for expansion

Write your MLAs, AHS, and health minister, SHECA advises central Albertans
Dr. Kym Jim, in internal medicine specialist and member of SHECA (Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta) spoke of patient care declining at Red Deer hospital in recent years due to lack of infrastructure and staff. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff)

Operating rooms at Red Deer hospital are sitting empty and unused while Central Albertans are being sent elsewhere for surgeries because of a critical shortage of local OR support staff, a local surgeon told a full-house crowd on Wednesday.

Despite a $1.8 billion promised Red Deer hospital expansion that won’t be ready until 2030-32, such serious dysfunctions at the facility are immediate — and worsening, several members of SHECA (Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta) told an audience of concerned regional citizens, mayors and health care workers.

SHECA’s main message to Alberta Health Services is: Provide a transition plan for the hospital now to keep patient care from eroding even more.

Some local doctors envisioned a transitional space being built to accommodate more patient beds, surgical suites and specialty programs before the hospital expansion can be completed.

READ MORE: Red Deer hospital expansion will take time to complete: Alberta infrastructure minister

“We need a champion for the Red Deer hospital expansion,” stressed orthopedic surgeon Dr. Keith Wolstenholme, at the meeting at the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame.

But also he expressed concern that everyone sitting on the Alberta Health Services (AHS) executive board is from either Calgary or Edmonton and not one lives in a rural area or mid-sized city like Red Deer.

“Who will be our champion? …We need someone who will give us transparent updates on the project,” he added, so Central Albertans will know what to expect over the next few years.

While AHS has spoken of more staff recruitment for the local hospital, Wolstenholme revealed that many of the new doctors coming here from Calgary or Edmonton on a temporary basis. They did not sign on to become full-time Red Deer-area residents.

Although any recruitment is great, the surgeon added, efforts, so far, are not making up for the exodus of front-line employees who, tired of the chronic infrastructure shortfall, are leaving to practise elsewhere.

Wolstenholme noted that over 20 specialist physicians frustrated by chronic hospital shortages, have left Red Deer hospital over the last two years — which is leading to less patient access and worsening the quality of care that can be provided in central Alberta.

READ MORE: Red Deer County mayor confident hospital expansion finally a go

-Local patients recount long waits for care at Red Deer hospital

“We are short of almost everybody. We don’t have enough physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists,” as well as OR support staff and anesthesiologists.

Wolstenholme stressed that AHS can’t wait nearly 10 more years, until the hospital expansion is completed, to stem the tide of medical experts who are leaving. Red Deer could then be in the same position as Grande Prairie — of having a brand-new hospital and not enough people to run it.

Many other hospital dysfunctions, aside from the empty ORs, were laid out before the crowd at the town hall meeting. According to SHECA’s data, there were 268 patient transfer by ambulance to other hospitals over the last year, which is tying up resources and costing taxpayers more.

Plus the acuity of patients is getting worse, said Dr. Kym Jim, so it becomes very stressful and damaging to morale to have to discharge these people, transfer them out, or shift them around the hospital to free up beds.

“You tell (patients), ‘You can’t stay here,’ and the feedback is brutal,” said Jim. “They tell you, ‘You don’t care about me’” — which he added, is very hard to hear when health care workers spent years training to care for people.

READ MORE: Red Deer hospital nurses worry about patient safety

Perhaps most alarmingly, “service disruptions” at the hospital are increasing in frequency, said Wolstenholme. For a total of 89 days over a six-month period, there were evenings, when cardiology, internal medicine or gastroenterology specialists were not available.

“This means you could come in at 7 p.m. with a heart attack or intestinal bleeding and they might not have anyone who can help you until the next morning,” Wolstenholme explained. Life-threatening cases must be sent by air ambulance to the larger centres.

In 2017, Red Deer hospital, Alberta’s busiest outside Calgary and Edmonton, was found to be receiving only a fraction of the resources that were going to other hospitals around the province — and local doctors believe little has changed for the better since.

Wolstenholme noted physicians in Central Zone also receive less than one per cent of the total Alberta funding for stipends, (essentially overtime pay) — far less than is available to physicians in other zones — which is certainly another disinventive to recruitment to the Red Deer area.

Jim told the crowd, the hospital “is continuing to lose ground. We can’t do what we could do three or four years ago today.”

SHECA members urged Central Albertans to write to their MLAs, to AHS or the Health Minister, and demand that urgent action be taken to deal with hospital problems now and not by 2031.

“Everybody has a stake in this,” said SHECA member Harley Hay.

Hay joined the group after a friend of his arrived at Red Deer hospital with a heart attack and had to be taken by ambulance to Edmonton, where he barely pulled through.

If Red Deer hospital had had a cardiac catheterization clinic, he said his friend would have instead gone through a 20-minute local procedure rather than being put through that ordeal.