Diverting surgery patients from Red Deer’s hospital should hopefully be avoided later this month with nearly all vacant on-call shifts for anesthesiologists filled, says Alberta Health Services.
But a Red Deer anesthesiologist said a recent survey of the anesthesiology department showed half the staff plan to start looking elsewhere for work in January if AHS doesn’t fix the ongoing shortage soon.
“If half the department is gone, you’re no longer doing any major surgery. You can’t even cover emergencies. You actually can’t have an acute hospital,” Dr. Arun Anand said.
“Overnight, the Red Deer hospital could turn into a day-time facility like Olds. That’s actually very possible.”
In late September, healthcare staff at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre warned that a looming lack of anesthesiologists would mean urgent procedures, from C-sections to appendectomies to major traumas, would have to be diverted to Edmonton or Calgary and that those cities would not be able to handle the extra cases.
“The consequences of such a collapse would have catastrophic effects on the health, safety, and survival of our patients,” wrote Red Deer surgeons about the local hospital’s surgery program in a letter to Health Minister Jason Copping last month.
Risk of another surgery diversion comes after 149 emergency general surgery patients, between April 29 and July 4, were diverted to other hospitals due to a shortage of clinical assistants for general surgery, and other factors. During the diversion, 332 general surgeries (both urgent and scheduled) were completed in Red Deer.
In a statement Monday, AHS said it has been working on multiple fronts to secure on-call coverage to help address gaps in the schedule, and its leadership will continue to meet with anesthesiology, surgical specialty leads, and department heads to review recruitment efforts for these critical programs.
“We have had some successes, including ending the general surgery diversion in early July, and more recently being able to utilize nine operating rooms with available staffing and anesthesiology and exceeding the surgery targets in September, which saw 931 surgical cases completed,” AHS said.
AHS said eight anesthesiologists who are in various stages of assessment and credentialing will begin work at the site in the coming months. Two more positions are also in the process of being posted, with additional positions to be posted as needed.
Anand, who wrote his own letter to the health minister, said the global shortage of anesthesiologists is real, but Calgary and Edmonton actually have more anesthesiologists than most cities and they often only work part-time at their hospitals.
“It’s a human resources failure. With the right incentives, people might come to Red Deer on their off days. We’re only an hour and a half away.”
He said a light needed to be shone on the problems in Red Deer.
“We’ve always been ignored. I think that’s a common theme. I think Red Deer is often pushed to the side,” said Anand on Monday from Ottawa where he worked for a few days. He headed to a Winnipeg hospital before returning to Red Deer next week.
He said despite the cost of flights, hotels and car rentals, it was still worth it to pick up shifts in other provinces.