Alberta health workers want Smith to listen and act quickly on province’s health woes

Alberta doctors and nurses are calling for urgent action from the freshly re-elected UCP government to address the province’s struggling health system, and they’re asking the Premier to listen to voices from the frontlines.

During the election campaign health workers spoke out about overwhelmed ERs and shortages of both hospital staff and family physicians.

Now, with the election settled, many say timing is key.

“It is a crisis situation right now and urgent action is going to be critical,” said Calgary ER physician Dr. Katie Lin, one of hundreds of doctors from Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer and Lethbridge who signed recent letters raising the alarm about the state of the province’s emergency rooms.

Lin and her colleagues will be watching Danielle Smith’s next steps closely.

“I think it will be really, really important that health care worker voices, especially at the frontlines, are heard,” she said.

The president of the Alberta Medical Association wrote to Smith on Tuesday, congratulating her on the win and asking to meet as soon as a new health minister is appointed.

“People are devastated. People are angry and exhausted,”  said Dr. Fred Rinaldi.

Dr. Katie Lin, wears a mask, glasses and surgical cap as she looks into the camera.
Dr. Katie Lin is an emergency room physician in Calgary. (Katie Lin)

 “We really, really do need to have some action go with the words.”

According to Rinaldi, the group’s priorities include more support for existing team-based practices, premiums for after hours work, and improved pay for virtual care.

“They already know what we want. We’ve only explained it a dozen times to them. So we would be looking forward to starting at a running pace,” she said.

Calgary ER physician, Dr. Arun Abbi,  wants health officials to free up hospital beds by moving more patients into long-term care, a move Alberta Health Services has said its already working on.

“We’re going to have some type of viral illness [in the fall] that’s going to hit us and lead to a rise in admissions. And it would be nice to have some capacity so we can withstand that wave,” said Abbi.

The shortages of nurses and family physicians need to be addressed too, according to Abbi, who is also president of the Alberta Medical Association’s emergency medicine section.

“I would love to sit down at the table with the Premier,” he said.

“That’s probably the biggest frustration among my colleagues in [emergency medicine] is people don’t feel they have a voice…We’ve become the defacto place to send people for care.”

Dr. Arun Abbi looks directly at the camera
Dr. Arun Abbi is president of the emergency medicine section with the Alberta Medical Association. (CBC)

Nurses want a voice too

The Alberta Association of Nurses is also asking to meet.

“We’re very concerned about patient wait times and surgical wait times. We’re also concerned about the state of patient care,” said Kathy Howe, executive director of the association.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Howe noted the provincial government has taken steps to train and accredit more nurses, but said more needs to be done to address retention.

“We’ve got to stop the bleeding,” said Howe.

“They need to take a really serious hard look at why nurses are leaving the profession.”

During her election night victory speech, Smith gave a nod to the health and education systems and her plans to improve them.

“I’m asking health care and education professionals … I’m also asking parents and patients, to work with me and the UCP caucus to build a health care system and an education system that are models for the entire world,” she said.

“I know we can do this together and I am here to listen and to work alongside of you.”

Repairing her fractured relationship with frontline health workers should be one of Smith’s top priorities, according to a Calgary-based health policy expert.

“I think that we have good reason to be concerned about how this election is going to impact our ability to recruit and retain health care workers,” said Lorian Hardcastle, associate professor in the faculties of law and medicine at the University of Calgary.

According to Hardcastle, trust has been broken and there is no easy path forward.

“If [Smith] wants to make this a place where health care workers want to be at the very least she’s going to have to start acknowledging what they’re saying and not acting as though the system is fine.”

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