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Sylvan Lake working to address doctor shortage

A shortage of doctors is affecting all Albertans, but the Sylvan Lake & Area Urgent Care Committee and the Sylvan Lake town council are working to ease the burden as much as possible in this small pocket of the province.
A shortage of doctors is causing Advanced Ambulatory Care Services to shut down.

A shortage of doctors is affecting all Albertans, but the Sylvan Lake & Area Urgent Care Committee and the Sylvan Lake town council are working to ease the burden as much as possible in this small pocket of the province.

Sylvan Lake’s Advanced Ambulatory Care Services (AACS) has been seeing shutdowns recently due to no doctor on staff to man the clinic. However, other services within the building have remained open.

“I suspect that this problem was occurring during the pandemic, but it was hidden by the low number of people who could come to AACS or go to their family doctor,” said Susan Samson, chair of the Sylvan Lake & Area Urgent Care Committee. “But now it’s obvious that we’re short doctors. This has been caused by doctors retiring, a doctor that passed away who held a large file of patients and the distaste the doctors and nurses must have felt when they got beat up by the UPC during the pandemic.”

At its busiest time, in 2019, AACS was seeing about 19,000 patients during the year. This number dropped in 2020 and 2021, but it’s rising again post-pandemic.

In an effort to attract more doctors to the area, Sylvan Lake, specifically the Urgent Care Committee, played host to a doctor from South Africa who is considering coming to work in Canada and may decide to call Sylvan Lake home.

Dr. Charnette Steele arrived in Alberta on July 7, staying until July 13, and she spent most of her time in Sylvan Lake, exploring the town and seeing what she could be offered here.

“Even if this doctor from South Africa pans out, it won’t solve the problem,” said Samson. “We need more than one doctor. I’m not sure how many, but one isn’t going to solve the problem.”

While the first part of the plan was to host Dr. Steele and hopefully convince her to relocate to Sylvan Lake, the next part of the plan includes fundraising and taking their concerns to a higher level of government.

“We have talked about what we think the problem is and we have formed a sub-committee,” said Samson. “We are going to work on doctor attraction and retention.”

Samson said the committee plans to attend the annual Rural Health Professions Action Plan (RhPAP) conference, a group that helps rural communities attract and retain health professionals. The committee will also be partnering with the local Tim Hortons during the smile cookie campaign, where money raised from every smile cookie sold will be going towards attracting new doctors and retaining the doctors Sylvan Lake already has.

“It will take some money, some action steps and a commitment,” Samson said of the doctor recruitment plan. “But that’s how change happens in the province – whoever talks the loudest and the most and whoever has a plan. And I think we have a plan.”

In addition, Samson said the committee hopes to make a presentation to town council in the fall, suggesting the committee and council work together, so their combined efforts can go further.

“Albertans spend a lot of money on healthcare,” said Samson. “Are we getting value for what we’re spending? I think we need to have a hard look at some changes. We are asking for better care, the right kind of care, in the right place and the right time. And visitors that come here, we need to be able to handle that overload.”

“This is a provincial problem, but it affects our residents,” said Sylvan Lake Mayor Megan Hanson. “Unpredictable hours are not desirable when the community really depends on this service. We need the service we were promised during the hours we were promised.”

Earlier this year, the Alberta government announced it would be dedicating about $90 million to address rural physician recruitment and retention, split amongst various programs. For example, the Rural Education Supplement and Integrated Doctor Experience (RESIDE) program will provide bonuses to 20 new family physicians that choose to set up shop in one of 15 rural or remote communities identified by the government. However, Sylvan Lake was not one of the communities identified, although more communities will be added to the list in the future. According to the RhPAP press release, Alberta has one of the most generous physician recruitment and retention programs and offers among the highest overall physician compensation in Canada.

“I think we are very fortunate to have an ambulatory care centre,” said Samson. “There are only seven in the whole province. To have one here is a real testament to the work and the effort and the surrounding communities’ collaboration that got that facility here. The Urgent Care Committee has dropped about $830,000 on medical care equipment in that facility, thanks to fundraising. And we do that because all of us in the surrounding area recognize that healthcare is one of the pillars of having a good life. If you don’t have health and healthcare, none of the other stuff matters.”