Lack of nurses and doctors affecting hospitals in northern Alberta

AHS recently reduced hospital surgical, emergency, and acute care services in 5 communities in northern and central Alberta because of physician and nursing shortages.

Last month, I wrote a story covering the closure by Alberta Health Services of emergency departments of 3 hospitals in the province. Since that time, there have been several closures of various departments throughout Alberta.

My previous story highlighted closures in the communities of Elk Point, Fairview, and Rocky Mountain House. The closures ranged from 12 to 24 hours and were because of a lack of physician coverages.

The hospital in Elk Point lost emergency services again after that story. It closed its emergency department for 24 hours on 20 May, and then another 24-hour closure on 27 May.

Furthermore, AHS decided to close emergency services in Elk Point every Tuesday and Thursday until further notice, effective 1 June.

Elk Point isn’t the only community losing hospital services since my original story.

First, AHS decided to cancel some obstetric services at the hospital in Westlock for nearly two months, starting on 19 May and running until 12 July. The lack of C-section services specifically was because of a physician on maternity leave. This also resulted in the hospital providing obstetrical services for only low-risk births.

AHS planned to use hospitals in Barrhead (40 km away) and St. Albert (68 km away), as well as Edmonton, if needed.

In addition, AHS cancelled surgical services at the hospital in St. Paul, because of a lack anaesthetist coverage, as a result of physician vacancies and an inability to secure locum coverage. The days without surgeries included 20–22 May and 28 May–1 June. Surgery services cancelled included C-sections.

Hospitals in Bonnyville (66 km away), Cold Lake (118 km), and Lac La Biche (122 km) were designated as backups, just in case.

Speaking of Elk Point and S. Paul, AHS sent out the following letter last Friday.

Due to a lack of nurses, AHS had to shut down a third of the acute care bed at the St. Therese–St. Paul Healthcare Centre and nearly half the acute care beds at the Elk Point Healthcare Centre for nearly 3 months.

Finally, yesterday, AHS shut down the emergency department at the hospital in Boyle, a community about 163 kilometres north of Edmonton. This 24-hour shutdown took place because of a lack of physicians. Hospitals in Athabasca and Lac La Biche were on call for any emergency rerouting.

So, what’s causing all these pauses and cancellations?

If we look at the Schedule 2 for the last 5 AHS annual reports, we find the following information regarding full-time equivalent positions for nurses in Alberta.


Looks like we had quite a few more nurses last year than we did the year previous.

Now let’s look at the difference in numbers from the previous year.


Finally, let’s look at the percentage increases:


While the number of nurses increased last year compared to the previous year, it’s been at a slower rate.

In fact, if you compare the number of total nurses against the total population, Alberta had 1 nurse for every 173.4 people in 2018–2019 and 1 nurse for every 172.3 people in 2019–2020.

So, even though the number of nurses has increased, the number of nurses per capita has decreases.

And we don’t even know what the numbers for 2021 are yet. Plus, this is for the entire province. It would be interesting to see what the numbers are like for the St. Paul and Elk Point hospitals specifically.

We do know that for the entire North Zone, there were 7 fewer AHS staff in general (not just nurses) in 2019–2020 compared to 2018–2019 and 27 fewer physicians.

Per capita, that’s 1 AHS staff for every 44.4 persons and 1 physician for every 747.6 persons in 2019–2020. The previous year, it was 1 AHS staff for every 44.2 persons and 1 physician for every 772.2 persons.

Again, we don’t have numbers for 2020–2021 nor numbers for St. Paul and Elk Point specifically. But if they’re anything like they were for the entire province and for the health zone as a whole over the last two years, reduction in staffing may be to blame.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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