‘Dire situation’ as rural Alberta hospital sees staff shortages, ER closures

Click to play video: 'Many rural Alberta hospital’s short of staff, ER closures common'
Many rural Alberta hospital’s short of staff, ER closures common
Rural Albertans describe it as an alarming situation: Oyen, like other rural communities, is facing a lack of health-care staff. Its hospital has shut down all acute care beds, has limited emergency department hours and the town has just one ambulance that isn't always staffed. Provincial affairs reporter Saif Kaisar reports. – Feb 24, 2023

Dozens of Alberta Health Services sites are facing service disruptions. Many rural Albertans are calling it alarming and are demanding help.

Oyen, a town of about 1,000 people located 300 kilometres east of Calgary, has no acute care beds in hospitals and limited emergency department service.

“It’s pretty dire,” Conny Hertz told Global News. She’s a retired health-care worker in Oyen.

She and other area residents are pointing at AHS and say the community isn’t getting enough support.

The Big Country Hospital in Oyen is facing a major shortage of nurses. All 10 acute care beds in the hospital have been shut down, and since January, the emergency department started closing between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Story continues below advertisement

“We have no acute care,” Heather Knapik said. “If you have a five-year-old child with pneumonia, they are sent 100 miles away to go to hospital. You have to get a hotel room and stay with them and not be with your family.”

“There are accidents, there are people that die on our highway here. There’s a huge gap in Alberta with no health care [at night].”

Oyen has one single ambulance stationed in the area and in December, it wasn’t staffed for 14 out of 31 days.

Acadia Valley Fire Chief Roger Didychuk says AHS has now committed to having that ambulance staffed every day, and he says it has been staffed regularly.

“I think everybody is being honest with the problem, and there is a problem, and they’re trying to fix it. Yeah, I’m very confident that this will get resolved,” he said.

However, he does admit the situation is quite serious.

The latest health and medical news emailed to you every Sunday.

Didychuk says despite Oyen being a small town, the hospital and ambulances service a large area.

Story continues below advertisement

Last month, a town hall in Oyen brought out about 600 people — all concerned about the state of health care in the region.

Click to play video: 'Alberta EMS union says system on verge of collapse'
Alberta EMS union says system on verge of collapse

AHS tells Global News it is working to fix the issues, and that recruiting and retaining workers has been especially challenging post-pandemic.

“Recruitment of nursing staff at Oyen Big Country Hospital remains a challenge. Recruitment efforts are ongoing to help stabilize staffing levels. AHS is working to fill our current vacancies,” AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in a written statement.

“AHS will continue to engage with the community to provide updates.”

People who live in the town say they haven’t heard any updates from the service and several want a second town hall to follow up.

Story continues below advertisement

“We’re hopeful but I reserve my judgement on whether AHS has done anything to fix this situation until we have an ER that’s open 24 hours a day, until we have an acute care hospital,” Knapik said.

It’s an issue seen across rural Alberta.

AHS reports 32 of its sites are having some disruption in service.

“We are seeing those service disruptions in other facilities. So, I don’t think that Oyen is the outlier here.

“I suspect that maybe Oyen happened to be one of the first ones to actually face this reality,” Jordon Christianson, chair of the special areas board, said.

“This is not just an Oyen issue… It’s a broader [one].”

Christianson, like Didychuk, says he believes the issues will be resolved.

“We’ve been working with Alberta Health Services and the community just to find solutions to get through this temporary service disruption. I think we’re close, it’s not happening as fast as we’d like it to, but I think eventually we’ll get there,” he added.

Click to play video: 'Critical Care: Front-line workers detail harsh realities of care in Alberta'
Critical Care: Front-line workers detail harsh realities of care in Alberta

The health minister’s office did not comment, directing Global News to AHS’ statement.

Story continues below advertisement

Meantime, Alberta’s NDP blames the situation in Oyen and elsewhere on the United Conservative government.

“These are the impacts we’re seeing, unfortunately, of the government’s decision to push our health-care system to the limit repeatedly in the course of the pandemic, going to war with doctors, underfunding and failing to support paramedics and others, and that leaves folks in areas like Oyen,” Health Critic David Shepherd said.

As no clear timeline has been provided by AHS, residents say the average things they do continue to leave them a little more anxious.

“You don’t get the golden hour out here because you might be an hour from the hospital to start with,” Hertz said.

Click to play video: 'Training hub development part of long-term strategy to help rural doctor shortage: Alberta health minister'
Training hub development part of long-term strategy to help rural doctor shortage: Alberta health minister

Sponsored content