BLOG: Alberta’s expensive health system is leaving many patients dissatisfied

AHS reporting increased number of gastrointestinal illness cases in the South Zone. Global News

Global Calgary’s Health FYI reporter Heather Yourex shares her thoughts on health care in Alberta in advance of Thursday’s 2015 budget announcement…

Health care is expensive. Year over year, it eats the biggest slice of Alberta’s budget pie by a long shot.

In 2014, Alberta spent nearly half of its $40 billion budget on health and wellness; $18 billion, including $10.7 billion to operate Alberta Health Services.

Per capita, the Canadian Institutes of Health Information has found Alberta’s spending is the second highest in the country, and yet the system continues to struggle with problems related to overcapacity and access.

In recent months, Global News has spoken to many frontline workers and patients who expressed frustration with health care in the province:

For example, in Global Alberta’s Code Red series, we spoke to paramedics who warned that Emergency Room congestion and a shortage of resources was contributing to lengthening ambulance response times.

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We also interviewed 19-year-old Kyra Wise who described “feeling lost” after a mental health program cut interrupted her anxiety disorder therapy.

We interviewed Calgary Mom Leona Fortune who said her son spent over 50 hours waiting in the emergency department for care following a suicide attempt, because all of Calgary’s 18 psychiatric crisis beds were full.

We also spoke with Nadine Foster, who shelled out $18,000 and drove to Montana to have shoulder surgery after months of waiting in pain.

Experiences like these suggest patients are not getting the kind of bang for the buck one would expect from an $18 billion health system.

So what can be done to fix the problem?

Alberta Health Services CEO and President Vickie Kaminski has suggested the budget can be trimmed without impacting patients, and says there are still administrative savings to be found.

In early February, AHS announced cost containment measures including wage freezes, efforts to reduce sick leave days and a more responsible cell phone policy.

Kaminski even suggested during a media conference that significant dollars could be saved by printing less.

In a recent editorial, the President of the Calgary and area Medical Staff Society advised health care workers to get ready for health cuts.

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“If we have ideas around how services can be delivered more efficiently, now is the time to get involved,” said Dr. Steve Patterson in the most recent issue of Vital Signs.

New diagnostic tools, for example, could save the system millions.

Dr. Shelagh Coutts is currently leading research looking to develop a $5 blood test that could potentially replace the $2,000 worth of scans used now to diagnose minor strokes.

Another study, led by Emergency medicine specialist Dr. James Andruchow, is testing a new heart attack screening tool. If the test proves reliable, Andruchow believes it could save the health system millions of patient bed hours within hospital emergency departments.

I suspect this is the kind of innovation Alberta’s health system will likely need to see a lot more of moving forward, if it has any hope of delivering patients the timely care they need without breaking the bank.

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