Sylvan Lake Mayor Megan Hanson hopes the expected arrival of a new doctor will help ease an urgent care physician shortage.
In recent weeks, Sylvan Lake’s Advanced Ambulatory Care Services has had to reduce hours a number of times because of doctor shortages.
For a community that hosts hundreds of thousands of summer visitors, the temporary closures could not come at a worse time.
“We have a number of people here visiting and they don’t have a family doctor to go to,” said Hanson. “So, it’s not an option to see someone else. This is where they have to go when something comes up.”
Hanson said the care centre had to shorten its hours a few times in the summer of 2021, “but I don’t recall it ever being like this.”
This week, the urgent care centre, normally open 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., had to close at 3 p.m on Monday and Tuesday. It also shortened hours on July 27, and a week earlier the service located in the town’s community health centre that offers diganosis and treatment of urgent but non-life-threatening illness and injuries reduced hours three days.
A combination of factors has led to the strain on services. Last year, a popular local doctor and an urgent care centre mainstay passed away, and in recent months summer vacations and doctor illness have also affected doctor availability.
The town and the Sylvan Lake and Area Urgent Care Committee have taken their concerns to Alberta Health Services (AHS), while stepping up efforts to recruit new doctors.
Those recruitment efforts recently had success. A South African doctor was shown around the community last month and came away impressed enough to agree to sign a contract. She must practise elsewhere for a couple of months and then work under a local physician for a time.
It is hoped when she is available to join the urgent care centre physician rotation it will provide some relief to the doctors sharing those duties now.
Hanson said the town is hopeful other doctors will follow.
“One of the strategies we’re looking at is how we can play a bigger role when it comes to doctor recruitment and retention.”
However, there is more to improving service than adding doctors. Town representatives believe a more flexibile system needs to be in place so that when doctors are unexpectedly unavailable on short notice another can step in.
“I think new doctors are part of the answer but there likely has to be some work (by AHS) on what that roving coverage looks like as well.”
Hanson said town and urgent care committee representatives met with AHS officials as recently as last week to ensure the issue stays on the front burner.
Urgent care committee chairperson Susan Samson said a sub-committee has been formed to focus on doctor recruitment and retention. Committee members will also be at an upcoming conference of the Rural Health Professions Action Plan, a group dedicated to helping rural communities attract health providers.
Samson also plans to approach town council to suggest they join forces to find ways to improve urgent care.
The Alberta government announced it was setting aside $90 million for rural physician recruiting and retention, although Sylvan Lake was not named as one of the eligible communities in the first round of funding.