Hinton declares local health-care crisis over ‘terrifying’ family doctor shortage

FILE: A doctor wears a stethoscope around his neck as he tends to patients in his office. Jeff Roberson / The Canadian Press

The mayor of Hinton, Alta., is sounding the alarm over what he calls the town’s deteriorating health care situation, saying half of the population has lost access to a family doctor in the past year.

Earlier this week, Hinton Town Council declared a local health-care crisis due to a shortage of primary care physicians.

Hinton Mayor Nicholas Nissen told Midday On 630 CHED With Courtney Theriault that the town west of Edmonton typically has 15 physicians. The town of about 10,000 people is currently down to six doctors, some of whom work part-time.

Nissen said the loss of physicians is mainly due to retirement.

“Because of the system not doing succession planning, it’s put us in a situation where we’ve lost over half our physician complement in a very short period of time. And with that, half of our community within the last year has lost access to a family doctor,” Nissen said Thursday.

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“We are losing access to primary care so quickly now. … When you lose access to your primary care practitioner, you are effectively losing access to the health-care system because the family doctor is the gatekeeper to care.”

Nissen admits declaring the local health-care crisis doesn’t have any legal powers attached to it in terms of accessing increased government support.

He said council is using the declaration as a communication and advocation tool to ensure residents are aware of the situation.

“We’re stating the truth about what our situation is and part of that is communicating with our own residents in the community,” Nissen said.

“We need to advocate for our health-care system… We are in a unique (situation) and we’re calling it a crisis situation.”

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The shortage has forced some residents to drive upwards of four hours to walk-in clinics in larger centres like Edmonton for things like prescription refills or blood work requisitions, with no guarantee they will be seen due to long wait times.

“Losing access to your primary care provider is just terrifying for many of our residents,” Nissen said. “It can be devastating.

“We’re not in a business-as-usual situation any longer. We have to take extraordinary and drastic actions to maintain what we have and the access that we have.”

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Nissen explained the complexities of rural health care mean primary care physicians aren’t solely responsible for working at a clinic. They are needed in many other centres.

“In the city, you’ve got a family doctor, they work in a clinic all day and that’s how it is. In a rural centre, they’ve got to work in our hospital, they’ve got to work in our continuing care facility, they’ve got to work at … our senior’s lodge,” he said.

“Our physicians are working as much as humanly possible, but they just don’t have the time to spend in the clinic because all of these other spaces require their attention.”

Nissen said he was approached by the town’s physicians in April, and it became apparent the medical clinic was no longer financially viable because of staff turnover.

He said the town, along with the Hinton Health Care Foundation, took the “extreme step” to take over operations of the medical clinic in the short-term.

“Our doctors can focus on doctoring and we can hopefully stabilize our primary care, and thus the remainder of our medical system in Hinton while we work on attracting and bringing in younger and new health care practitioners,” Nissen said.

At the time, Nissen said he reached out to the province and, within days, met with Health Minister Adriana LaGrange.

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“I’ve been absolutely impressed and very pleased with the support that we’ve been getting from the province,” he said.

“Unfortunately, everyone in the province is experiencing the same things we’re experiencing.”

In a statement Friday, LaGrange said the province has been working collaboratively and creatively with the town to find solutions.

“I appreciate the mayor’s solution-focused approach to this issue,” LaGrange said.

“AHS (Alberta Health Services) has recently recruited one physician to Hinton and is actively recruiting for five more in the area.”

LaGrange said the province is working to address health issues in rural Alberta, in general, to ensure people are getting the care they need.

“This includes more rural medical training opportunities, an updated physician compensation model to encourage the best and brightest to practice in Alberta and expanded scope for nurse practitioners to be able to provide primary care with government compensation.”

The Alberta government recently announced a new payment model that would allow nurse practitioners to set up primary care clinics and make 80 per cent of what family doctors are paid.

Click to play video: 'Alberta announces new payment model for nurse practitioners'
Alberta announces new payment model for nurse practitioners

Nissen is encouraging nurse practitioners who are interested in working in Hinton to contact him.

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“We have the opportunity to create a system where that practice will work for you, and Hinton is an absolutely beautiful place to live,” he said.

Hinton is located about 280 kilometres west of Edmonton, and about 75 kilometres northeast of Jasper.

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