The past year was marked with hospital staffing shortages, which impacted the Sturgeon Hospital in St. Albert.
As 2022 came to a close, The Gazette spoke with municipal and provincial leaders about how some of the issues in Alberta's healthcare system manifested locally throughout the year, and what may change in 2023.
Although the problem worsened compared to previous years, a constant healthcare issue seen throughout 2022 in Alberta has been hospital staffing shortages, and St. Albert's Sturgeon Community Hospital was not left unscathed.
In May, St. Albert's local nurses' union president and Sturgeon Hospital nurse Orissa Shima was interviewed by The Gazette for an article about how the staffing shortage in the Sturgeon's ICU unit, which was "critical" for the first few months of 2022, had stabilized, although the shortage had become critical in the ER unit.
"We have patients who get admitted who wait days in ER for a bed on the ward, adding more pressure in ER,” Shima said at the time.
“It’s not just nurses that are needed. But we need to recognize we are short health-care workers, and we need to actively recruit and try to retain the staff they’ve burnt out,” she said.
The Sturgeon Community Hospital currently remains at 90-95 per cent capacity said St. Albert-Morinville MLA and current Minister of Service Alberta, Dale Nally in an email on Dec. 22.
"We anticipate that will come down as the current waves of respiratory viruses pass," Nally said.
The number of registered nurse vacancies in Alberta had reached 929 as of February 2022, which was an increase of 442 per cent compared to just two years prior, reported Global News.
On Oct. 6, the day now-Premier Danielle Smith won the UCP's leadership election, former premier Jason Kenney announced that a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between Alberta and Philippines with the goal of recruiting registered and practical nurses to work in the province.
"Alberta has a strong and vibrant Filipino community, and the Philippines is a key partner that will help the province address ongoing labour shortages in nursing," the corresponding news release read. "This MOU lays the foundation for a continued cooperative relationship between Alberta and the Philippines in order to address future health-care labour needs."
Later that month, and prior to firing the board of Alberta Health Services (AHS), Premier Smith said she thought the staffing shortages were "manufactured by the bad decisions at [AHS]."
"Once the world knows as well that we aren't going to have vaccine mandates, I suspect that those who have been fired in other jurisdictions will know that they will have a home here," Smith said on Oct. 23 at the UCP's annual general meeting, four months after AHS rescinded COVID-19 vaccination as an employment condition for healthcare workers.
In an interview on Dec. 21, former premier and current leader of the provincial opposition Rachel Notley told The Gazette she thinks there's no "magic bullet solution" for hospital staff shortages.
"There's no question that recruiting more front-line health care providers is a critically important part of the process," Notley said, adding that the province should be working with municipalities to help recruitment and retention efforts for nurses and physicians.
"In terms of keeping these hospitals open and making sure there's enough nurses and enough lab technologists and enough X-Ray technologists – all those folks need to be in play to keep the hospital open and that comes down to this larger picture of how we recruit folks," she said.
Notley said she thinks provincial recruitment efforts were easier in the past due to Alberta's history of competitive pay and wage growth, but, as Global News reported on Nov. 25, Alberta has had the lowest wage growth in the country since 2020. In the two year time period, Alberta's wages have increased collectively across all sectors by less than one per cent, while wages across the country have risen by seven per cent.
"The cost of living here was relatively low and a lot of physicians felt that they had good opportunities here, and I think that we've undone a lot of that as a result of the last three and a half years, in particular with the UCP ripping up the doctor's agreement, and then all the runs at nurses and other important front-line professionals," Notley said.
"We need to restore reputation as a place for people to come."
Nally said he thinks the province has had some success with recruitment this year, pointing to the 364 new emergency medical services (EMS) staff hired since Jan. 2022, including 264 paramedics.
"We know the system is under exceptional pressure and Minister Jason Copping is working with Dr. [John] Cowell and AHS to identify next steps to add capacity and improve access," Nally said.
"If more resources are needed, they’ll be there."
Despite staffing shortages reaching critical stages, the Sturgeon Hospital managed to avoid temporary unit closures throughout the year, unlike what was seen in other municipalities like Fort Saskatchewan.
In four instances this year, including as recently as Dec. 16, the Fort Saskatchewan Community Hospital had to temporarily pause it's obstetrical services due to staff shortages. During each temporary closure, soon-to-be parents set to deliver their child needed to change their birth plans and go to the Sturgeon Hospital.
In the Dec. 16 news release, AHS says the most recent closure is due to a lack of available obstetricians and on-call service providers. Services are scheduled to resume at the Fort Sask. hospital on Dec. 29, the release says.
Previous obstetric unit closures in Fort Saskatchewan were between Dec. 31, 2021 and Jan. 4, 2022; between Aug. 6-21, 2022; and between Sept. 2-6, 2022, according to previous AHS news releases.
In August, The Gazette reported that a temporary closure of the obstetrics unit at the Bonnyville Health Centre, operated by Covenant Health, had caused one couple to travel to St. Albert to deliver their second child.
Sara and Tyler Collins, both teachers in Bonnyville, were told just one month before Sara was due that the family would need to change their plans as the obstetrics unit at the Bonnyville Health Centre would be closed from July 25 to Sept. 7.
"I shouldn’t have second-rate health care because I live outside of major urban areas," Tyler said at the time. "People can’t give birth in northeastern Alberta — this shouldn’t be political — people accessing basic health care in a moment in their lives that they’re the most vulnerable and that has the most stress."
Just as hospital staff shortages weren't a new issue, Alberta's EMS system entered 2022 quite beleaguered.
Just 24 days into the year the provincial government and Minister of Health Jason Copping established a committee comprised of municipally and provincially elected officials; union representatives; paramedics; ambulance operators; and Indigenous communities; and tasked the committee with providing a report on to the province on how the EMS system could be improved.
In her position as the president of Alberta Municipalities, St. Albert's Mayor, Cathy Heron, served on the EMS advisory committee.
In an interview, Heron said the committee completed their final report, which included about 50 recommendations for improving the province's EMS system, in September. As of Dec. 27, the committee's report has not been made public.
"Hopefully the provincial government and Minister Copping will take the advice seriously and start implementing some of these suggestions," Heron said.
As being on the advisory committee came with a significant time commitment, Heron said ambulance capacity and the EMS system was top of mind for her when it comes to the healthcare issues facing Alberta, and she hopes the provincial government remains focused on the issue in 2023.
As The Gazette reported in June, EMS capacity issues had resulted in St. Albert's ambulances responding to more calls in Edmonton than St. Albert between April 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022.
However, a change implemented by the province in February had started reversing the trend, and between April 1, 2022 and May 16, 2022, just 30 per cent of calls attended to by St. Albert ambulances were in Edmonton, while 56 per cent were local.
In June, Heron said the implemented change was that St. Albert ambulances would only respond to calls in Edmonton if the situation was severe, rather than responding to every call.
Despite changing which calls local ambulances attended to in other municipalities, The Gazette previously reported that the City of St. Albert was forecasted to generate $442,000 more in revenue from ambulance billing than previously thought this year, due largely to EMS surge capacity requests from AHS.
The $442,000 in additional revenue represents a nearly 50 per cent increase in expected ambulance billing revenue.
Nally says the EMS system's capacity remains "a top priority" for the provincial government.
"We’re adding resources to meet the demand on EMS, and we’ll be working on solutions until we get response times back within AHS’s targets," Nally said, also mentioning that EMS call volumes are 30 per cent higher compared to 2019.
"There is progress being made, including in St. Albert," Nally said. "The latest posted data from AHS shows that in October, the median response time was around seven minutes, down from the peak last winter and within the target of eight minutes for urban areas."
"We increased the EMS budget by $64 million, or 12 per cent this year. Those dollars are being spent to add capacity, including 19 new ambulances in Edmonton and Calgary this year," Nally said, adding, "in Edmonton on average there were three more ambulances on the road at the end of November compared to early October, and that helps across the region."
The overstretched EMS system has also manifested in St. Albert paying high premiums with the Workers' Compensation Board, as the cost of city employee claims, including mental health claims for first responders, currently sits 47 per cent higher than industry average.
The Gazette previously reported that first responders represent 82 per cent of all city employee claims, a situation that city director of human resources Ryan Stovall believes will take years to resolve.