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Staffing challenges put pressure on Calgary hospital emergency departments

The Foothills hospital, South Health Campus hospital, and the Peter Lougheed Hospital emergency departments are all under major pressure.

Among those hospitals, lack of staffing, and pressures from the reduction of hours in neighbouring community urgent care centres have caused the Foothills Medical Centre to reduce beds in its emergency department.

“We continue to experience significant pressure on our healthcare system, particularly in our emergency departments, due to higher-than-usual volumes of seriously ill patients, the continued impact of COVID-19, and increased staff vacancies and absences due to illness,” said Alberta Health Services in a statement made to LiveWire Calgary.

According to Karen Craik, secretary treasurer for the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), the reduction in hours at the Urgent Care Centre at the Airdrie Community Health Centre and the South Calgary Health Centre has put a large strain on the city’s emergency departments.

Departments which are already over-stressed within the region, said Craik.

“This puts a lot of pressure on nurses,” she said.

Vital time off needed for medical professionals

According to Craik, nurses and doctors who have worked during the pandemic are in need of vital time to regroup, otherwise they may choose to leave the healthcare system.

“People need to be taking some time off in the summer, but they feel guilty about taking time off,” she said.

Craik said that staffing needs to be addressed at the highest levels of the health care system.

“This is a longer systemic issue—it happened before COVID where we had a shortage of nurses and other health care workers before that, as well as doctors, and then what that does is it impacts the client care and the patient care,” she said.

AHS said that the current challenges in providing health care are not unique to the province.

“This is not unique to Alberta and is being experienced across the country,” said AHS.

“The global pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on healthcare systems around the world.”

The Canadian Medical Association reported that in 2021, more than half of physicians and medical learners had suffered from burnout. This was a 23 per cent increase from 2017 levels.

Further results indicated that 46 per cent of physicians were considering reducing their clinical work.

“We should be deeply alarmed that half of the physician workforce is considering reducing their clinical workload. The downstream impact to patient care will be significant as we are already experiencing access to care issues,” said Dr. Katharine Smart, CMA president, in a statement made about that report.

Alberta Health Services says no plans to further reduce hours

AHS said the South Calgary Health Centre was a temporary measure taken only as a last resort.

“There are no current plans to reduce hours at other facilities in Calgary Zone,” said AHS.

AHS said that staffing levels at the South Calgary Health Centre have remained constant and are in line with pre-COVID levels, but has seen a significant increase in demand.

“Staff and physicians are regularly staying several hours later than their scheduled shift end time to care for these patients,” said AHS.

AHS revealed figures comparing May and January of this year. May had an average of 145 patients per day, while January had 106. Pre-pandemic, the facility saw approximately 120 patients daily.

AHS said the number of patients going to South Calgary urgent care centre after 8 p.m. has increased almost two-fold. It went from 300 patients in January 2020, to 585 patients monthly in May 2022.

The average number of patients in the department waiting to be seen at 10 p.m. has increased from 9.8 in January of this year, to 20.9 in May.

Numbers for June, July, or August were not included in the statement.

Health care issues shouldn’t be put onto staff, said UNA

Craik said that solving the current health care crisis shouldn’t be put onto the shoulders of front-line staff.

She said that the solution to staffing shortages shouldn’t be reducing urgent care hours.

Craik said there’s still the problem with hiring sufficient staff that needs to be addressed, although AHS said that it is actively recruiting for the province.

“A lot of the issues is when they’re announcing that they want to cut back staff, and cut back salaries,” said Craik.

“Anybody who looked at nursing as an option in university and heard that, they might have turned to other options, and they’re gonna go elsewhere.”

Craik said the government needs to stop looking at individual budget numbers.

She said the government needs to look at what the priority is for the whole health of AHS, and for the whole health of the province.

“If you cannot look after the people, what are you there for?” asked Craik.

“You need to look at what’s the priority—it’s not about profits like in private care, it’s about looking after individuals, and looking after people individually,” she said.

Craik said the Government of Alberta is refusing to listen to nurses and doctors on issues of patient care, having enough beds, home care, continuing care, and having enough public health in general.

“When you have a government that tells Alberta Health Services that they can only spend so much money and they cannot speak to us, it’s a big issue,” she said.

Edmonton zone health care facing significant issues as well

Earlier this week, Edmonton hospitals were reported to have been treating patients in hallways.

Alberta Health Services said that it was not the preferred method to provide care, but was necessary to ensure that all patients received they care they needed. AHS said that this was only occurring in the Edmonton zone.

“We know this can be difficult for patients and their families. We always try to make our patients as comfortable as possible while they are in our care,” said AHS.

Due to high demand for acute care services, said AHS, the Edmonton Zone enacted surge protocols late Tuesday to support patient flow, and to manage the high number of admitted patients waiting in Emergency.

AHS said that the surge protocols produced the desired effect of supporting patient volumes, and moving admitted patients onto a care unit instead of an emergency department.

Alberta Health Services ended the practice of treating patients in hallways on Thursday.

“The number of patients now placed has allowed us to conclude this surge activation and return to monitoring the demand and capacity requirements throughout the day,” said AHS.