More concerned, more letters from Alberta ER doctors saying health system in crisis

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More doctors across Alberta are speaking out, saying their emergency rooms are under intense strain, despite political messaging to the contrary.

On Wednesday, nearly 200 Calgary physicians published an open letter describing “collapsing” ERs and calling for Albertans to think about health care when they vote in Monday’s provincial election.

And others are raising the alarm, too.

Similar letters have been penned by physicians in other cities, including Edmonton, Red Deer and Lethbridge.

Dr. Warren Thirsk, an Edmonton ER physician, posted an open letter and petition this week, echoing concerns described by Calgary physicians.

“Each and every day, despite political and rhetoric promises, this system has held our patients hostage for lack of needed resources,” the letter reads.

In an interview with CBC News, Thirsk said there were serious gaps in care around the province.

“[We’re] seeking to tell people how bad it is in the face of the political ads that tell everyone that the system has been fixed, which we find very frustrating since we’re inside the system.”

Thirsk describes walking through the emergency hallways of the Royal Alexandra Hospital when they’re lined up with patients waiting for care — patients he can’t get to.

“It chips away at your soul,” said Thirsk.

“The key concern is the suffering of our patients. It is … difficult to go to work every day and to look after everyone you possibly can and to see the hallway filled with people you can’t help because you don’t have the time and you don’t have the resources to do it.”

According to Thirsk, Edmonton’s hospital capacity has not kept up with population growth.

“Not investing is a form of a cut.… You have to build infrastructure with an expanding population, and that hasn’t happened,” he said.

“The waits have been normalized.”

CBC News reached out to Alberta Health Services (AHS) regarding the latest letters but a spokesperson referred back to its earlier response to the Calgary doctors’ letter. That statement acknowledged the concerns, adding AHS had offered to meet.

A 90-day update on the provincial government’s health care action plan,” overseen by AHS official administrator Dr. John Cowell, noted ER nurses were being hired and provincial emergency room wait times had dropped 10 per cent between November and January.

Red Deer, Lethbridge letters

Emergency room physicians in Red Deer sent their own private letter to the local Alberta Health Services administration last week.

“We struggle with staffing — both nurses and physicians. We struggle with specialist services and coverage. We feel the pain of lack of family physicians as well as the strain [that] the pandemic and post-pandemic world has put on everybody,” said Dr. Mike Weldon, who works in the ER at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.

“We always had a sense that it was a provincial issue, and then to see a letter [from Calgary doctors] that hit so close to home for us in Red Deer really finalized that.”

Weldon’s biggest worry right now is a shortage of specialists. There are times when hospital shifts for specialists, such as cardiologists, go unfulfilled, he said.

“I’m resigned to the fact that we have to send patients out of Red Deer to the cities when we don’t have space or specialists to look after them,” said Weldon.

“It’s demoralizing, to say the least, and … it’s all borne by patients themselves in the form of poor outcomes and longer wait times.”

Dr.  Mike Weldon looks directly into the camera.  He's wearing a surgical mask and stethoscope.
Dr. Mike Weldon is a physician working in the emergency room at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre. (Submitted by Dr. Mike Weldon)

ER doctors in Lethbridge published an open letter recently, too, saying patient volumes are up and wait times are growing.

In an interview with CBC News, signatory Dr. Nicolas Hamilton said the shortage of family physicians is driving more patients to the ER for care.

In addition, Hamilton says emergency physicians are leaving Lethbridge now and he expects the staffing crunch will come to a head in July.

“In the last couple of months, there have been a few days where we were not able to cover shifts and the wait times just went up to six or seven hours — something which was rarely seen before,” he said.

“This summer, the wait times will inevitably go up.”

Earlier this week, UCP Leader Danielle Smith repeated her message that the system is improving.

“We’re already seeing results. We’re seeing that we’ve reduced hospital wait times. We’ve reduced wait times for ambulances,” she said

“We’ve got to do more. I appreciate everything that our front-line doctors are raising, everything that they’ve experienced.”

Meanwhile, NDP leader Rachel Notley pointed the blame directly at the UCP and promised to meet with front-line health workers if her party forms the next government.

“We will listen to what they’re telling us is happening in the system as opposed to trying to claim that everything’s fine,” he said.