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Red Deer-area to get a private surgical clinic to reduce wait times, says Premier Jason Kenney

1,350 hip and knee, hernia and other non-urgent operations would be done there annually
Alberta Health Services will be putting out a request-for-proposals this fall to start charter surgical clinics in Central and South zones. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said a private surgical clinic will be started in Central Alberta to reduce long patient waits for knee and hip replacements as well as other non-urgent operations.

Alberta Health Services will be putting out a request-for-proposals this fall to start charter surgical clinics in Central and South zones, Kenney said at a news conference on Wednesday.

The goal is to “ramp up surgery and capacity” in central and southern Alberta so these operations can happen within a clinically recommended period, added Kenny, who wants to provide 1,350 surgeries a year in the Central zone charter clinic and 1,250 more surgeries annually at the South zone clinic.

These privately run surgical suites will still be fully covered by Canada’s public health care system so patients will not have to pay for the operations, which must be up to provincial standards, the premier stressed.

Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping said, “We want patients to get surgeries sooner and closer to home. These (operations) will also be publicly funded, at no charge to the patient, so it’s the same service, the same surgeons and the same standards, only this will reduce cost and free up hospitals to do more complex surgeries.”

But opposition NDP leader Rachel Notley blamed the UCP government for the hospital shortages and said “privatizing health care will only make the situation worse by taking scarce resources and staff away from the struggling public health care system.”

Friends of Medicare also spoke out against “risky” private clinics, saying they are designed to secure more profits for private health care operators, not provide better patient care, and could erode the public health care system.

Red Deer hospital surgeon Keith Wolstenholme expressed concern about the provincial plan — but said it sounded good in theory. “Ideally, anything that improves surgical capacity is a good idea,” he said since some Red Deer-area patients are waiting up to three years for joint replacements and local surgeons are only working at about 60 per cent capacity because of hospital access issues.

While some local surgeons would likely welcome the chance to do more operations at the private clinics, Wolstenholme feels the biggest impediment is finding enough other vital health care workers to run these private clinics.

He predicted AHS will have a lot of trouble recruiting more anesthesiologists, for example, without bleeding human resources from an already over-taxed public hospital system.

“It takes a lot of different health care workers to run an O.R. and they will have a difficult time get time more anesthetists and will definitely have a very difficult time getting more nurses.”

Copping admitted during Wednesday’s news conference that “we will need to do more than add capacity, we will have to try some new approaches” to staffing.

For instance, an Anesthesia Care Team Model has successfully been trialed, with one anesthesiologist overseeing two or three respiratory therapists who manage patient care during two or three surgeries. Copping said this will allow more surgeries to be done within the clinically recommended time period.

He added that various recruitment efforts are underway by AHS.

Alberta Health Services spokesperson said recruiting and retaining a healthy workforce is critical to providing consistent and safe access to healthcare across the province.

As it will take some time to evaluate proposals for chartered surgical facilities, she said AHS will still have weeks or months ahead to continue focusing on recruitment and retention strategies before the private clinic can operate.

“Increasing funding for contracted surgical facilities increases the demand for staff and physicians to provide them, just as increased funding in hospitals would. All funding increases for additional services create demand for new staff and physicians,” said the spokesperson.

Red Deer has already successfully recruited and trained additional surgical nursing staff and re-opened some surgical suites that had been previously closed, she noted. ”Extensive work has also been underway in Red Deer to increase the availability of anesthesia care providers.”

Kenney also spoke on Wednesday about how Alberta has now improved on pre-pandemic performance for cancer surgeries and has also made gains in speeding up cataract and other eye surgeries, but is still lagging in the provision of hip and knee surgeries, despite opening 32 new intensive care unit hospital beds in the province and planning to open about 20 more.

“Surgical wait times are one of the biggest issues in Alberta’s Health care system,” he admitted.

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