‘We really need to fill that void’: rural Alberta municipalities struggling with doctor shortages

Click to play video: 'Alberta communities scrambling as province wide doctor shortage reaches critical levels'
Alberta communities scrambling as province wide doctor shortage reaches critical levels
WATCH: Cochrane is one of many communities dealing with a shortage of physicians. As Jessie Weisner reports, a combination of factors has created the ‘perfect storm’ in the town. – Aug 6, 2021

A physician shortage in rural Alberta communities has the province and municipalities looking at different ways to fill the gaps.

In Cochrane, the issue has only escalated in the last year, according to Mayor Jeff Genung.

“I’ve heard from a number of residents and physicians over the last couple of years almost 18 months that we have a real shortage in Cochrane,” said Genung. “My doctor retired. I’ve had the same doctor for probably 40 years. I’m left looking for a new doctor.”

Genung says a variety of factors have affected the town’s ability to retain physicians. One of which, the Cochrane Primary Care Centre announced it will be closing by January 2022.

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“This is not a decision we wanted to have to make,” Calgary Foothills Primary Care Network executive director Darren Caines said in a statement on its website.

“The financial impact of the pandemic combined with the departure of physicians meant the business model was no longer sustainable in Cochrane. We are still working out the details, but we wanted to give doctors, staff and patients as much notice as possible.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta doctors, nurses say staff shortages are leading to ER bed closures'
Alberta doctors, nurses say staff shortages are leading to ER bed closures

Currently, Cochrane has 22 family physicians practicing at nine clinics.

Genung said the town’s physician shortage is made worse by an abundance of retirees and the provincial changes to their wages.

“They were talking about changing or affecting doctor’s wages, so that may have forced some physicians to look elsewhere or relocate their practice. We’ve had a number of retirees, those current doctors are retiring and leaving vacancies. So that really is the perfect storm.”

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In a statement from Peter Guthrie, MLA for Airdrie-Cochrane, he emphasized Alberta Health Services is not responsible for staffing private family physician practices, as they’re operated by individuals or groups of doctors.

“AHS Calgary Zone has approved six sponsorship positions for the Cochrane area, two of which have not yet been filled and are still posted as current vacancies,” he said. “From my understanding, there is interest from various physicians to fill the remaining vacancies.”

According to Alberta Health Services, the issue of physician shortages isn’t unique to Cochrane.

“AHS is experiencing recruitment challenges across the province. Although recruiting physicians is currently difficult across North America, AHS is experiencing a particular challenge in areas outside of main urban centres,” AHS said in a statement.

“We have a dedicated team in place focused on implementing solutions to support recruitment efforts.”

AHS listed some solutions it’s implemented including posting part-time positions, providing additional flexibility to staff and physicians to support family and communities, aggressively pursuing both Canadian- and internationally-trained physicians and exploring alternate models for care.

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Genung has decided to form a group within Cochrane consisting of himself, the town’s chief information officer and their intergovernmental relations representative.

“We are trying to get to the bottom of this,” he said.

“We’ve been working with existing doctors in Cochrane, we’ve actually given them a survey to fill out with a number of questions: why did you choose Cochrane to locate your practice? Why are you still here? What are some of the things that we can do as a community to attract new doctors? They’ve really been helpful.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta health-care system struggling with staffing shortages: NDP'
Alberta health-care system struggling with staffing shortages: NDP

AHS has also created a critical staffing task force to identify staffing shortages, vacancy trends and issues that may be impacting staffing.

“It may have to be something we pay attention to for the next three to five years, this isn’t going to be an easy fix, it’s not going to be a short-term problem that just goes away overnight,” said Genung.


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