‘Dire situation’ as rural Alberta hospital sees staff shortages, ER closures

Dozens of Alberta Health Services sites are facing service disruptions. Many rural Albertans are calling it alarming and are demanding help.

Oyen, a town of about 1,000 people located 300 kilometers east of Calgary, has no acute care beds in hospitals and limited emergency department services.

“It’s pretty dire,” Conny Hertz told Global News. She’s a retired health-care worker in Oyen.

She and other area residents are pointing at AHS and say the community isn’t getting enough support.

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The Big Country Hospital in Oyen is facing a major shortage of nurses. All 10 acute care beds in the hospital have been shut down, and since January, the emergency department started closing between 7 pm and 7 am

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“We have no acute care,” Heather Knapik said. “If you have a five-year-old child with pneumonia, they are sent 100 miles away to go to the hospital. You have to get a hotel room and stay with them and not be with your family.”

“There are accidents, there are people who died on our highway here. There’s a huge gap in Alberta with no health care [at night].”

Oyen had one single ambulance stationed in the area and in December, it wasn’t staffed for 14 out of 31 days.

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Acadia Valley Fire Chief Roger Didychuk says AHS is now committed to having ambulances staffed every day, and he says it has been staffed regularly.

“I think everybody is being honest with the problem, and there is a problem, and they’re trying to fix it. Yeah, I’m very confident that this will get resolved,” he said.

However, he does admit the situation is quite serious.

“It’s a staffing issue. We need more staff.”

Didychuk says despite Oyen being a small town, the hospital and ambulances service a large area.

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Last month, a town hall in Oyen brought out about 600 people — all concerned about the state of health care in the region.

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AHS tells Global News it is working to fix the issues, and that recruiting and retaining workers has been especially challenging post-pandemic.

“Recruitment of nursing staff at Oyen Big Country Hospital remains a challenge. Recruitment efforts are ongoing to help stabilize staffing levels. AHS is working to fill our current vacancies,” said AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson in a written statement.

“AHS will continue to engage with the community to provide updates.”

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People who live in the town say they haven’t heard any updates from the service and several want a second town hall to follow up.

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“We’re hopeful but I reserve my judgment on whether AHS has done anything to fix this situation until we have an ER that’s open 24 hours a day, until we have an acute care hospital,” Knapik said.

It’s an issue seen across rural Alberta.

AHS reports 32 of its sites are having some disruption in service.

“We are seeing those service disruptions in other facilities. So, I don’t think that Oyen is the outlier here.

“I suspect that maybe Oyen happened to be one of the first to actually face this reality,” said Jordon Christianson, chair of the special areas board.

“This is not just an Oyen issue… It’s a broader one [one].”

Christianson, like Didychuk, says he believes the issues will be resolved.

“We’ve been working with Alberta Health Services and the community just to find solutions to get through this temporary service disruption. I think we’re closing, it’s not happening as fast as we’d like it to, but I think eventually we’ll get there,” he added.

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The health minister’s office did not comment, directing Global News to AHS’ statement.

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Meantime, Alberta’s NDP blames the situation in Oyen and elsewhere on the United Conservative government.

“These are the impacts we’re seeing, unfortunately, of the government’s decision to push our health-care system to the limit repeatedly in the course of the pandemic, going to war with doctors, underfunding and failing to support paramedics and others, and that leaves folks in areas like Oyen,” Health Critic David Shepherd said.

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As no clear timeline has been provided by AHS, residents say the average thing they do continues to leave them a little more anxious.

“You don’t get the golden hour out here because you might be an hour from the hospital to start with,” Hertz said.

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