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No surgical services at Cold Lake hospital, emergency department service disruptions possible

Service disruptions continue at the Cold Lake, Elk Point and St. Paul hospitals, due to staffing issues. This week, AHS reported the surgical department in Cold Lake would be affected for six weeks, while there is also a possibility the Cold Lake emergency department experiences some disruptions over the next few weeks.

LAKELAND - This week, Alberta Health Services (AHS) confirmed that surgical services at the Cold Lake Healthcare Centre were being affected due to a shortage of General Practice Anesthetist and the inability to secure locum coverage. 

The effects of ongoing staff shortages at hospitals in St. Paul, Elk Point and Cold Lake are being felt across the Lakeland. 

"There will be no scheduled elective surgeries or endoscopies during this time. Services such as obstetrics and surgery may experience service disruptions," reads information received by AHS communications spokesperson, Lisa Laferriere, speaking to the Cold Lake situation. 

The Cold Lake Healthcare Centre will experience service disruptions from Nov. 29 to Jan. 16 – a stretch of six weeks – until anesthetist services resume. 

When Lakeland Today reached out to the City of Cold Lake Mayor Craig Copeland on Nov. 30, he was unaware that any changes had been made to the operations of the Cold Lake Health Centre by AHS. 

“This is pretty big – and so I expect somebody from senior bureaucrat, from AHS to reach out and talk to the mayor and work with them,” says Copeland.  

“We have been trying to talk to senior AHS executives for a long, long time and it's disappointing that we're not involved in discussions and understanding what is happening in our hospital. A local hospital is one of the most important buildings and services in any community.” 

According Copeland, he reached out to senior leadership outside of Cold Lake several weeks prior to AHS’s latest announcement to address concerns related to a further staff shortage at the hospital. 

“It is no surprise to me because our council has identified this many, many weeks ago to their senior AHS leadership and so did our MLA – so it is what it is,” he says.  

“In terms of surgical disruptions that is extremely concerning, because I believe that for the time being say, if you have to deliver a baby or you need emergency surgery, patients will be going to Bonnyville.” 

He adds that it is unfortunate that people will have to make the commute to Bonnyville for surgery, noting that this situation will likely cause the facility in Bonnyville to have an increase in surgeries. 

According to AHS, "Recruitment efforts are ongoing, however General Practice Anesthetist’s are extremely difficult to secure."  

In order to ensure the safety of patients, "there will be no operating room capability in Cold Lake during this time," says Laferriere. 

The effects of the staff shortage in Cold Lake reach beyond the city. 

"We are working to ensure all patients have the support they need. This includes working with nearby sites including the Bonnyville Healthcare Centre, St. Therese- St. Paul Healthcare Centre, or William J. Cadzow - Lac La Biche Healthcare Centre," says AHS. 

"We are doing all we can to ensure our patients receive the care they need, when they need it, and would like to thank them for their support and understanding during this time,” says Laferriere. 

On Tuesday, the AHS website showing temporary bed and space reductions across the province also listed a service disruption for the Cold Lake emergency department. Lakeland Today reached out to AHS for more information. It was noted the website was being updated further, in a bid to clarify the situation. 

"Due to physician vacancies and an inability to secure locum coverage, there may be some temporary service disruptions to the Cold Lake Healthcare Centre Emergency Department in the upcoming weeks," says Laferriere, adding, "We will update the community on any emergency department service disruptions." 

Copeland says it is unfortunate that decisions to temporarily reduce services until the staffing issue is addressed had to be made, but adds “I have total confidence in the hospital manager, Chief of Staff and our doctors that are at the hospital that they are going to work as best they can with what they have for staff resources.” 

“Our staff over at the Cold Lake Hospital and our nurses do an amazing job and they just need more resources. We are at the end of the highway, and for some reason we are always getting forgotten by AHS it seems,” Copeland says. 

During any emergency department service disruptions, nursing staff will stay on-site in the Emergency Department, providing triage and assessments and referrals for patients to alternate Emergency Departments in surrounding communities. 

"If an emergency department service disruption should occur, EMS calls will be re-routed to the Bonnyville Healthcare Centre (54km), St. Therese- St. Paul Healthcare Centre (121km), or William J. Cadzow- Lac La Biche Healthcare Centre (148km), to ensure local residents continue to have access to the emergency services they need." 

Like always, patients are asked to call 911 if they have a medical emergency.

Bonnyville hospital could be impacted 

Town of Bonnyville Mayor Elisa Brosseau says the Cold Lake disruption “Is going to have a significant impact on our local hospital here in Bonnyville. Not just on the hospital and the staff that are already overworked there, but also on the residents that are local to our hospital. The care that they are going to be able to get could be at risk as well.” 

Brosseau, who spoke with Lakeland Today on Wednesday morning, said she is aware that several other hospitals in the area are operating with reduced beds, but believed the Bonnyville hospital was operating at capacity.  

“Whether it's because it’s a Covenant Health Hospital and (they) just will not do that, or if there are talks in the future of (beds closures) being a possibility, I really don't know,” she acknowledges. 

Brosseau adds, “I have certainly heard from the staffing side and from people who work at the hospital how stressful the situation is. They are significantly overworked and even on their days off they are constantly being asked if they could work because the hospital is so stressed that they need all hands on deck if they can get them.” 

“It's unfortunate that we're putting staff in a position that they have to choose between what services they can provide or who gets help before somebody else. That is the unfortunate reality of the situation. And hopefully, we can find a path forward out of this together.” 

On Wednesday afternoon, Lakeland Today was notified that four obstetrical beds have been temporarily closed at the Bonnyville Health Centre due to staffing shortages.

In a statement, Karen Diaper, the communications manger for Covenant Health writes, "Patient care and safety remains our top priority and we continue to collaborate with AHS and nearby sites to ensure North Zone residents receive the care they need." 

Elk Point ED

The Elk Point Healthcare Centre also continues to experience service disruptions at its Emergency Department.  

An update was released this week stating, "The Elk Point Healthcare Centre emergency department (ED) will continue to be temporarily without on-site physician coverage for a 24-hour period starting at 8 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday." 

The situation has been ongoing since early summer. 

Nursing staff will continue to remain on-site in the ED providing triage and assessments, and referrals for patients to alternate EDs in surrounding communities as needed. EMS calls are being re-routed to the St. Therese – St. Paul Healthcare Centre in St. Paul, 35 km away. 

"AHS continues to secure on-site physician coverage for those hours, and will provide another update on physician recruitment and physician coverage for the local ED in mid-January," reads the notice from AHS. 

Continued bed closures 

Cold Lake and St. Paul hospitals are both experiencing the temporary closure of acute acre inpatient beds, due to "temporary staff shortages due to staff vacancies." 

In Cold Lake, AHS has made the decision to extend the temporarily closure of five of the 24 acute care inpatient beds. The five beds will remain temporarily closed until staffing issues can be resolved. The other 19 beds remain open. 

"This is a temporary measure to ensure safe and high-quality care for patients, and a quality work environment for staff. AHS continues to look for solutions to address staffing needs," according to information provided by Laferriere. 

In St. Paul, the hospital also continues to face temporary staff shortages. 

"Alberta Health Services has made the decision to extend the temporary closure of 10 of the 30 acute care inpatient beds. The 10 beds will remain temporarily closed until the current staffing challenges can be resolved," according to AHS. 

"AHS continues to look for solutions to address staffing needs," says AHS, adding, "Temporarily reducing the number of acute care beds at a health care facility when staffing levels are low is common practice and does not compromise the care patients receive." 

The bed closures do not impact the St. Paul Emergency Department "and there are no plans to reduce health care services in St. Paul.” 

Another update about the bed closures will be provided in the New Year, in mid-January 2022. 

*Updated at 2:45 p.m. on Dec. 1 to reflect additional information received by Covenant Health after publication.