There is serious concern from those in Edmonton’s medical community about a growing number of hospital bed closures across the province.
Depending on where you go, a visit to an emergency department in Alberta right now can come with longer than normal wait times.
“At the Royal Alex, one of the busiest emergency departments in western Canada, they’ve had to close six beds,” United Nurses of Alberta director of labour relations David Harrigan said.
The UNA said there are more than a dozen hospitals across Alberta that have recently had to close multiple ER beds.
“We’re rapidly getting to a crisis point all across the province, because there’s such a nursing shortage, AHS is forced to close beds,” Harrigan said.
Dr. Shazma Mithani works in the ER at the Royal Alexandra hospital. She said losing six of the 27 acute beds for the summer — and, at times, more — due to staffing shortages during the hospital’s busiest time of year is of great concern.
“Unfortunately, what that ends up translating to — when we have beds closed in such a busy emergency department — is that patients wait longer and their care can be compromised because we simply don’t have the space to see them in,” Mithani said.
Premier Jason Kenney was asked about the staffing shortages during his Calgary Stampede pancake breakfast Monday morning. He said Alberta Health Services is working on it.
“There’s always a bit of a challenge, though, in rural and remote hospitals — that’s not a new thing and it’s not just an Alberta thing. And that’s why we’ve increased, by $19 million, the budget for physician recruitment and retention in rural hospitals,” the premier said.
“Some of those hospitals, they only have a few physicians attached to them and when people go on summer holiday, and we don’t have a local pool that’s strong enough and that’s large enough, then some of those hospitals are hard-stretched. So AHS is working on that.”
Health Minister Tyler Shandro added that AHS has been expecting this and the health authority has been working alongside Covenant Health to make sure the staffing pressures in the summer are going to be addressed.
“They are going to continue to make sure they’re recruiting all professions, especially in the rural facilities where we do have those pressures, as well as the major urbans. But again, we told AHS that when it comes to recruiting, retention, especially throughout the summer months, it’s the same as COVID — resources aren’t an issue,” Shandro said.
“People are going to be able to get the care that they need throughout the province throughout the summer as we knew that this shortage was going to happen.”
Alberta Health Services said, in a statement Monday, there are times when a lack of staff availability causes temporary bed closures at some sites.
“Currently, staff shortages have led to the closure of 112 to 117 beds out of 8,400 beds (representing less than 1.5 per cent of total acute care beds),” the statement said.
AHS said changes to service such as these are not new: “It is common, especially in summer, for resources to be adjusted in conjunction with staffing levels.”
Despite nurses being sent to other hospitals to fill in, Harrigan said this patch work will only put more stress on nurses and won’t work long-term.
“They’ve been run into the ground and then to hear that the way this is being acknowledged is by proposing wage cuts is just really disappointing.
“These are the heroes of our province and they don’t deserve to be treated this way,” Mithani said.
Earlier this week, the province said it was looking for a three per cent salary rollback for nurses, saying it needs to get its finances back on track.
Harrigan said that might just be the last straw for some.
“A lot of them are telling us they’re seriously thinking of leaving the profession, that it’s just not worth their time to do this.”
Shandro said he believes the wage talks with nurses are a separate issue, and added that AHS and the finance minister are sitting down with the unions to talk through the negotiations.
Both Mithani and Harrigan said they hope this issue can be resolved soon.
AHS said it is working on recruitment plans that are targeted to fill vacancies by the end of August.
— With files from Caley Ramsay, Global News