OLDS — Efforts to solve the emergency care crisis in Consort helped spur Premier Jim Prentice to call for a comprehensive rural health care review on Tuesday.
Prentice announced a panel led by MLA Richard Starke will review the delivery of health care in under-serviced rural and remote areas. The panel’s first recommendations are to be on the desk of Health Minister Stephen Mandel in 90 days.
“The timeline clearly is short. We recognize that. That’s intentional. We need to see practical and tangible solutions that can be implemented without delay,” Prentice said.
He made the announcement at a press conference at Olds Hospital and Care Centre on Tuesday morning along side Mandel.
Prentice said many rural communities face daunting health care challenges, including recruiting and retaining health professionals and staff; caring for patients, having to travel long distances, and the need to co-ordinate services with neighbouring communities. In 2011, Consort Community Health Centre lost its five acute care beds due to a lack of doctors. Since then, the community found the doctors needed but negotiations are still underway with Alberta Health Services to reinstate the beds.
Prentice said the commitment of the people of Consort to find solutions was really a catalyst for the review.
“I want to stress this is not about closing rural hospitals,” the premier said.
Panel member Bonnie Sansregret, who chairs the Consort and District Medical Centre Society, called the review an exciting opportunity.
“Sometimes we have patients who have to travel an hour, an hour and half, and it’s a worry when you have a child who has a fever, you have a husband or grandfather that’s having a heart attack or a stroke. Those golden hours are very crucial,” Sansregret said.
She was undeterred by the 90-day deadline, despite a three-year wait for Consort to get its acute care beds reopened.
“It’s a new day isn’t it. New premier. New health minister,” Sansregret said.
Recommendations for rural communities with a population of 1,250 or less, like Consort, will be submitted in 90 days. The next phase of the review will look at populations between 1,250 and 2,500, followed by the final stage for populations over 2,500.
Prentice said Sansregret will bring community perspective to the table. The panel has three members in addition to its chair.
Other members are past Alberta Medical Association president and rural physician Dr. Allan Garbutt, and president of the College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta Dr. Shannon Spenceley.
The panel will not hold public hearings but more members can be added to the panel.
The review will be carried out in consultation with Health Advisory Councils and other stakeholders and health care experts to ensure local input.
The review is to focus on:
l Timely access to appropriate health care.
l Evaluation of specialist services in rural areas.
l Optimizing the use of existing rural health facilities, ensuring patient safety and quality services.
l Ensuring communities are engaged in health service planning and policy development.
l Recruitment and retention of health personnel in rural areas, consistent with appropriate levels of care.
l The link between rural economic development and the provision of health services within communities.
“It’s a very, very short time frame to fix a very, very big problem,” said Bruce Rowe, Wildrose MLA for Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills.
Kerry Towles, Wildrose MLA for Innisfail-Sylvan Lake, said Albertans need action, not another review.
“If (Prentice) actually listened to the frontline workers, and if he was out all summer listening to concerns — we don’t need a review. It’s pretty clear what Alberta needs. It’s more rural physicians, more primary care investment and more resources going to our frontline services and our communities,” Towles said.
She said Wildrose has been after the Progressive Conservative government for a long time to give Consort back its acute care beds and reviews into rural health care have already been done.
In 2010, Alberta Health Services developed the Community and Rural Health Planning Framework, which was updated again in October 2012. A Rural Physician Action Plan already exists funded under the Department of Health.
Wildrose says Albertans don’t need another government study to sit on a shelf.
“We’re not the kind of people that accumulate studies on shelves,” Prentice said.
“I just think it’s a waste of time, of people’s time, to develop studies and throw on the shelf. We will take steps to get things done,” Mandel said.