County of Stettler council hears local doctor situation is ‘critical’

Stettler county council heard a presentation describing the lack of doctors in the community as “critical.” The presentation was made at the June 12 regular meeting of council.

Dean Lovell, a member of the Stettler Doctor Recruitment Committee, and local businessman Terry Chesla, described to councillors the anemic doctor situation affecting the Stettler community and offered a well-researched solution.

Lovell stated doctor recruitment meetings have been enlightening but he’s been frustrated no improvements for the recruitment of doctors to Stettler have moved forward.

He noted Chesla, not a member of the committee but a concerned community member, met with doctors and other stakeholders to develop a modern incentive that would attract new doctors to this region.

“Essentially, that’s where we’re at,” said Lovell. “We’re simply ratepayers that are concerned about the community and the doctors that are here.”

Chesla, who provided councillors with a complete copy of the proposal, stated he and many others are concerned at the dwindling number of local physicians and what appeared to be less than successful efforts at recruitment.

“Stettler is at risk of seeing reduced healthcare options in the immediate future if a recruitment strategy is not identified and implemented,” stated the proposal.

“Locally, we are in a crisis with hospital operation, with only one anaesthetist and limited labour and delivery physicians available. This presents significant risk to residents of Stettler and county, as well as outlying communities that often access services within Stettler.

“Closure of services at the local health centre will lead to detrimental effects on the local economy, population and overall community. These anticipated and negative impacts are too great to ignore.”

Chesla used labour and newborn delivery as an example of a service at the Stettler Hospital at risk because of dwindling doctor numbers. He described the labour and delivery situation as “ an absolute critical stage.

“We are on the knife’s edge of having no labour or delivery in Stettler.” Chesla stated that if a woman shows up at the Stettler Hospital needing an emergency c-section, it’s hoped an ambulance is available. “We just have to hope baby and mom make it to Red Deer alive,” said Chesla.

The proposal included two options, the first proposing a general practitioner anaesthetist (GPA) (child delivery or no child delivery) or a GP (same) with financial support including a signing bonus that totalled $70,000 over five years.

The second option was simpler: a signing bonus of up to $70,000 paid over five years.

The proposal noted recruitment needs more than just dollar signs, and should include other supports such as mentors for doctors moving to a new community and a detailed campaign showing why Stettler was a wonderful choice for doctors to live and work in.

Additionally, it was suggested that an interest free loan made available to new doctors should be boosted to $100,000, meaning a new doctor considering Stettler as their home could see a financial benefit of about $170,000.

The proposal noted weak or non-existent healthcare services discourage people from moving to or staying in rural areas, eventually resulting in the community drying up.

Speaking with physicians, Chesla noted many different factors enter into physicians choosing a community or choosing to leave a community. He also stated both the Town and County of Stettler will likely have to partner on a new initiative to ensure success.

Chesla noted the current $20,000 the County of Stettler provides doesn't compare to what other communities are offering, and it was stated at the meeting the Town of Stettler provides things like a gift bag and complimentary lunch to new doctors.

However, Chesla noted he’s already presented to the Town of Stettler and had a positive experience.

It was explained that Alberta Health Services (AHS) handles recruitment in Alberta, but many communities conduct their own recruitment as it was also pointed out the competitive nature of any recruitment; it was also suggested a physician who recently left Stettler was attracted to a new position offered by AHS, who is supposed to be recruiting for Stettler.

Councillors also heard the effect dwindling doctor numbers are having on local healthcare: the Stettler Hospital’s emergency room is closing on a regular basis and the six doctors that are left are facing a huge workload.

Chesla and Lovell noted their proposal, developed with research from other communities and local doctor input, is a starting point but also a minimum.

Coun. Les Stulberg noted he wonders if the community realizes the severity of this problem; Stulberg added regardless as leaders the county council should do something about it.

Reeve Larry Clarke noted Stettler is a hub for east central Alberta and many smaller communities in that region may not realize the doctor crisis’ extent in Stettler.

Councillors accepted the presentation as information.

Stu Salkeld, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, East Central Alberta Review