By Brendan Miller on December 28, 2023.
Health officials in Medicine Hat say there are three big viruses impacting the region, including a massive spike in influenza. Health officials also say this year has been difficult for patients to access health care across the board and funding for health care has gotten worse since the provincial election in May.
If you’re feeling the chills, fever and congestion you’re not alone. Alberta Medical Association president and local emergency physician Dr. Paul Parks says the province hasn’t experienced these levels of influenza since the H1N1 outbreak back in 2009.
“This is crushing us in our health-care system across the province right now. I don’t think we’ve seen this level of severe influenza and emitted influenza for a while,” says Dr. Parks.
The health-care system is also seeing baseline COVID cases and a lot of respiratory syncytial virus or RSV among pediatrics and children.
Parks says the high number of cases combined with low vaccination rates is causing problems for the system.
“Influenza vaccines have been around for decades, very safe, and they’re very effective. And we need to encourage everybody to get out there and get their vaccines,” says Parks.
Parks says medical clinics and hospitals in Medicine Hat and Lethbridge have been operating at times over 100 per cent and they have had to move patients around to make things work.
Parks is concerned about the province’s current health-care funding model and says the region needs to find a way to bolster its workforce.
“I would say in the South zone are our biggest challenge is by far, our workforce,” says Dr. Parks. “In terms of capacity, workforce issues, whether you could put that blame on this specific government, probably not, because they’ve been building for a long time.”
Medicine Hat is trying to recruit three more emergency physicians as well as health-care workers and allied health-care support workers, while Lethbridge is desperately trying to recruit five more emergency physicians.
“Absolutely we’re struggling because we have lost the Alberta advantage. We used to be one of the places that the funding models were enticing and people would come work here,” says Parks.
The province is falling behind others like Saskatchewan when trying to actively recruit more health-care workers. And it’s not just in major centres. Oyen is also trying to recruit physicians to keep emergency departments open and Milk River’s clinic has closed several times throughout the year because of recruitment issues.
“It’s been perpetually closed, and they cannot recruit to that community,” says Parks. “Sometimes there are only access points at the emergency departments in the hospital. So we’re just seeing a lot more of that. And it just adds ongoing challenges and burdens to the workforce.”
Medicine Hat clinics and family medical practices are also struggling. Parks says clinics like Healthworks, which sees around one-third of patients in the Hat, are struggling because of the unilateral cuts the government made to family medicine funding.
“We have to work to convince the government to invest in boundary medicine or invest in acute care stabilization and make Alberta an enticing place to recruit new students, health-care workers and physicians,” says Parks.
However, this year Medicine Hat has been able to recruit a new neurologist, a new urologist and some family physicians. A new clinic has also opened in the city to provide psychiatric care to people suffering with depression and anxiety disorders.
Parks credits the job being done by local AHS teams and health-care leaders in the city.
“Our team down here is amazing, we’re collegial, we work really well together and really give a shout-out to how well our team has been functioning even with some of our recruitment and capacity challenges,” says Parks. “Nurses, allied health-care workers and physicians, despite these challenges of workforce and capacity are still doing phenomenal jobs. And our wait times are some of the best in the province. And we’re still giving fabulous care.”
Parks says there is still lots of work to do with the minister of health and premier in 2024 to continue working on problems with the funding model and to make the province an attractive place to recruit and keep health-care workers and physicians.
“They absolutely need stabilization funding and the new funding model so that it will support the work they’re (health-care workers) doing so they can keep on doing amazing work for our community.” says Parks.