LAKELAND – Over 40 community members with an interest in the region's health care services joined in on a virtual Lakeland Communities Health Advisory Council (HAC) meeting on Jan. 11, asking questions and discussing concerns with Alberta Health Services (AHS).
The Lakeland Communities HAC is one of 12 councils in the province, designed to bring the voices of Alberta communities to the provincial healthcare authority.
The first meeting of the new year was focused on creating space to hear input about local and regional healthcare, provide feedback to AHS regarding healthcare services, and to share information about the purpose and actions of the Lakeland Communities Health Advisory Council.
According to Cindy Harmata, a senior operating officer at AHS that works closely with the Lakeland Communities HAC, all public feedback will be shared with AHS leaders to inform their decision-making.
The virtual meeting started with Voices of the Community portion and allowed members of the public to share general community healthcare concerns.
First to speak was the reeve of Smoky Lake County, Lorne Halisky, who inquired if the Lakeland Communities HAC would be a good avenue to lobby and advocate for the Smoky Lake and Vilna hospital.
“Can we work through this committee to lobby or advocate for more central services or services that we lost through the years?... We do have a wonderful hospital in Vilna that's very underutilized.”
Harmata responded by saying, "This committee is a place where we definitely are coming to the table to hear concerns and to answer your questions where we can. In terms of advocacy, we often do suggest there's usually a political avenue.”
Generally, advocating works best through municipalities and their councils to Alberta Health and meeting with the Minister of Health, she said.
Reeve Halisky continued, “From the operational standpoint, I'm happy with our hospital, particularly our hospital in Smoky Lake. I'm just talking about services that we lost through the years in Smoky Lake as well as in Vilna hospital… I did take it up with Minister [Jason] Copping and I will again, because we do have equipment in our hospitals that are underutilized and so forth, that could be utilized more for every Albertan in our province.”
Harmata said the Lakeland Communities HAC process is like “a two-way conduit to Alberta Health Services,” where concerns and work plans are shared with the provincial health authority and information on new and upcoming projects are shared with the HAC and members of the public who attend meetings and engagement sessions.
A Lakeland Communities HAC council member out of the Lac La Biche region, Zicki Eludin, noted, “The discrepancy in Canada in healthcare is not between rich and poor. It's between rural and urban. And I think that we rural people, communities and organizations, have to get together to push to get the services in Smoky Lake and Lac La Biche, where we do have the facilities. We have to figure out a way to get our professionals to come to these small towns so that we can run our operating rooms, our dialysis, our CT scanners. We don't have the people to actually provide these services.”
Eludin added, “Let’s get our Lac La Biche councillors to host one of these meetings again. We've done it before. And let's do it again.”
50 per cent vacancies
Lac La Biche Coun. Jason Stedman, who is also a paramedic, attended the virtual meeting and shared his concerns during the Voices of the Community portion of the meeting. He asked whether there were programs in place to help attract more EMS workers to rural communities.
“I do know that this whole region, Smoky Lake, Athabasca, Boyle, Lac La Biche, are all almost operating at 50 per cent, 60 per cent capacities [for EMS services]. I'm wondering, is there awareness or noise being made to the people that you guys report to, or considerations and programs that might be utilized to attract EMS because we're really struggling out there. There's a lot of extra shifts that are being picked up by the little bit of staff that we do have, but the concern is the eventual burnout of those staff.”
In response Harmata said, “The work around recruitment is not specific only to nurses. We are not only looking to recruit doctors or only health care aids. It is for all health care professionals, which includes paramedics, EMTs, etc. So, there is quite a lot of work being done behind the scenes.”
She continued, “You're not wrong when you talk about 50 per cent vacancy rate overall and I can't speak specifically to EMS because that's not my portfolio. But my understanding is that we are sitting with some significant vacancies in North Zone.”
Adding a silver lining, Harmata pointed to paramedic programs in the North Zone and the AHS 10 Point EMS Plan.
“While I think enrollment is down, what I am hearing is there still is a concerted push to make sure that we keep those programs alive and well so that we can grow our own.”
In July of 2022, Portage Collage announced its Emergency Medical Responder, Primary Care Paramedic and Advanced Care Paramedic programs have been granted the highest possible accreditation and were given full approval status by the Alberta College of Paramedics.
Harmata noted that locally, across Canada and internationally, there are more open positions for medical professionals than there was roughly four years ago.
“We are competing with a number of other communities. We're competing all across Canada as well as the world. So that definitely has an impact,” she said.
Medical services close to home
As the Voice of the Community portion neared the end, Lac La Biche Coun. Lorin Tkachuk, and current council member of the Lakeland Communities HAC, shared a recent patient experience.
“With my wife delivering two days ago now and with the lack of doctors in Lac La Biche, we decided to try and deliver with a midwife again. Things were going well, and everything seemed to be alright. We got the good news that an anaesthetist would be locuming in Lac La Biche up until [Jan. 8], the day when [my wife] decided to go into labour,” described Tkachuk.
“My wife decided that she was comfortable delivering in Lac La Biche as long as there was an anaesthetist in case there was an issue, and she needed an emergency C section.”
Partway through the day, the Tkachuk’s midwife contacted the locum anaesthetist and was advised that he would not be available later than noon that day.
“So, we had to make the hard decision of whether we stayed in our community to deliver or go to Edmonton... So, we jumped in the vehicle and drove to Edmonton, to the Royal Alex, and we received great care... But it was a little disheartening for me that we weren't able to deliver our son in-community.
The Lac La Biche councillor said he wanted to share the experience because he believes there are things that can be done to provide services closer to home.
"To at least be able to give birth closer to home is very important. I think as a region we need to definitely come up with some better strategies moving forward on how we attract, retain and keep those types of services, especially when it comes to obstetrics.”
Physician recruitment report
Shauna Wallbank, a physician recruiter and work force planner with AHS gave a quick rundown of the region's new physician hires and ongoing vacancies across the Lakeland Communities HAC region.
In spring, a cohort of two international nurses are expected to start in Boyle.
In Bonnyville there remain four positions for family medicine with specialty and a family medicine physician, which will also include coverage in the emergency department. Wallbank noted that a new pediatrician is expected to be arriving in Bonnyville.
Town of Bonnyville Coun. Brian McEvoy noted that through the current AHS process to conduct physician assessments it could take almost a year before the expectant pediatrician starts working in the community.
“It can be cumbersome with the assessment process and that assessment process is coordinated and driven by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA),” acknowledged Wallbank.
“I found in the last six years of being with AHS that the CPSA, despite all the speed bumps along the way, have been very good at being on the ball and pushing through physicians, specialists and family medicine specialists... The steps that are in place are to make sure that those that are filling the roles and coming into the community are credibly skilled and well equipped in order to do the jobs according to Alberta standards."
In the City of Cold Lake there are currently three family medicine positions posted. However, the community did welcome a new physician, Dr. Sarah Le Roux.
City of Cold Lake Mayor Craig Copeland, who also attended the virtual meeting, noted the addition of a Family Physician who has started up his own practice in the city, Dr. Dylan Vatcher.
No new changes have been noted in Elk Point to date. St. Paul is still seeking to fill two psychiatrist positions.
In Lac La Biche there are some outstanding postings. The community is seeking a family medicine practitioner with low-risk obstetrics and one family medicine physician. The community is anticipating a family medicine practitioner with anesthesia services, who has worked in the community previously to arrive in the near future.
“For family medicine physicians in total, and this is from January, 2022 to December 31, 2022, the North Zone saw that 37 family medicine physicians that had started. That also includes eight specialists on top of that, so still some pretty good numbers considering we're still treading water through COVID,” said Wallbank.
Lakeland Communities HAC
On March 29, Lakeland Communities HAC is holding a virtual public engagement session from 6 to 8 p.m. The presentation will be on healthcare professionals' attraction and retention.
To participate in the next Lakeland Communities HAC event those interested must email [email protected] for a link.
*This article was updated as of Feb. 7 to reflect that Dr. Dylan Vatcher is a Family Physician, not a General Practitioner, which was previously published.