The temporary closures of the Sylvan Lake Advanced Ambulatory Care Service are a concern not only for residents and visitors to the community of Sylvan Lake, but also to Alberta Health Services (AHS) as well. We want to assure the community that AHS, and our partners, are working on a number of fronts to get to the root of these challenges.
Among the issues are staff fatigue and the need for time away. Across the globe, healthcare physicians and staff are tired, and the demands of COVID-19 have understandably resulted in less ability to pick up extra shifts. It is also summer, a time when we see higher requests for vacations and time off to be with family.
In addition, there are short-notice sick calls, which can compound challenges with coverage. The recent reduction in hours on Aug. 8 and 9 were due to sudden illness.
These issues come on top of the ongoing challenges of recruiting physicians, especially to rural areas.
The Advanced Ambulatory Care Service requires onsite physician support to operate and when there is a gap in that coverage, services cannot safely be offered. When a gap happens, locum physician coverage is first sought from the local area, then from the central zone and from outside the zone. We also look at adjusting schedules and making temporary changes to service hours before making the decision to temporarily close.
In the majority of instances, these processes are successful and services continue uninterrupted. However, there are times when, despite our best efforts, we are forced to temporarily close.
For example, it can be difficult to cover short-notice gaps, as other local physicians are already busy in their private clinics and locums have to travel to provide coverage.
We know the community wants to see consistent coverage and so do we. To that end, we are working with facility leaders, the local medical group and locums to find solutions. A number of strategies are being pursued, including:
• Hiring three new physicians for the community, including two who will have support for the Advanced Ambulatory Care Service as part of the contract. Another job posting is seeking a physician with obstetrical training to help support maternity patients. A fourth physician has also been secured, replacing an existing vacancy.
• Onboarding new locum physicians who have expressed interest in traveling to Sylvan Lake.
• Improving the scheduling process the physician group uses and reviewing whether changes to the length of shifts would be more enticing.
• Exploring opportunities to work with the primary care network to support alternative care providers like a nurse practitioner.
• Reviewing possible changes in hours of operation during the summer months to better align with times of peak demand after hours. No final decision on such a possibility has been made, nor would it without appropriate discussion with community partners and residents.
AHS values the work our rural physicians and healthcare teams do every day. We remain dedicated to supporting the Advanced Ambulatory Care Service that the community of Sylvan Lake worked so hard to help bring to fruition. We will continue to collaborate with the town and the Urgent Care Committee, and we look forward to working with the newly established sub-committee on recruitment and retention.
We have every intention of continuing to support the Advanced Ambulatory Care Service for those who staff it and those who rely on it.