'Crisis within a crisis': With no family doctors, Lethbridge residents sent out of town and to ER

·5 min read
Lethbridge resident William Pelech said he grew angry and frustrated when, for the first time in his life, he could not see a doctor in a reasonable period of time when he was sick. (Joel Dryden/CBC - image credit)
Lethbridge resident William Pelech said he grew angry and frustrated when, for the first time in his life, he could not see a doctor in a reasonable period of time when he was sick. (Joel Dryden/CBC - image credit)

Earlier this summer, Lethbridge, Alta., resident William Pelech received a letter from his family doctor.

The letter stated his doctor was relocating to Cochrane, Alta., and there was no doctor to replace him.

Soon after, Pelech began to grow ill. He suspected bronchitis.

Unable to secure a new doctor, he had to wait weeks to secure an appointment at Lethbridge's sole walk-in clinic.

"I was feeling worse and worse, taking time off work. [The doctor] said that I had pneumonia, and I had pneumonia for several weeks," Pelech said.

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

Over the past number of months, Pelech's frustrations have become increasingly familiar to residents across the southern Alberta city.

Online listings provided by the Chinook Primary Care Network indicate no family doctors in the community of more than 100,000 residents are accepting new patients.

Andrea Schultz, executive director of the CPCN, said those online listings are accurate.

"Recruitment strategies for primary care physicians are developed and executed through each clinic," Schultz said in an email.

"Further, the recruitment and relocation of physicians is an ongoing process which I imagine will take considerable time, especially during a pandemic."

It's a frustrating situation for Lethbridge resident Melissa Lorne's family.

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

Lorne had previously seen the same doctor for 19 years. When he retired, Lorne sought out a new family doctor — but since April 2020, she's had no luck.

"Over the past year and a half, we've been to the emergency room [for non-emergent care] about 20 times," she said. "The four of us, all told, over the past year and a half, it's been about 20 times.

"Then, you're pushing people who actually have an emergency out of the way. So it's really frustrating."

At the clinic

Tim Neufeld, clinic manager for the Campbell Clinic, said Lethbridge has seen multiple physicians retire and others leave the community to practice elsewhere — and there haven't been physicians to take their place.

That leads to tough conversations with patients with health-care needs, Neufeld said.

"Some of those patients have been with the Campbell Clinic for 50, 60 years, or they get referred to the emergency room for routine care," he said.

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

In a statement, a spokesperson with Alberta Health Services said there are challenges across the province when it comes to recruitment of family physicians.

The statement adds that AHS typically only recruits specialists for AHS facilities, of which some family physicians have privileges.

"At this time, AHS is currently offering sponsorship to family practitioners who are willing to be based in Lethbridge," the statement reads.

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

Neufeld said there is speculation that the lengthy contention surrounding the master agreement with physicians and Alberta Health may be having an impact on recruitment.

"There haven't really been any physicians to recruit," Neufeld said. "So, there's not a large number of Canadian graduates that we're able to speak with to possibly try to recruit.

"There's also currently restrictions on international graduates. We're unable to recruit those at this time. So the ability for us to recruit new physicians, it's really tight, and there's not really a lot of doctors out there that are looking."

That means patients in Lethbridge have to be sent to rural clinics or to the emergency room — something Neufeld said is unsustainable.

"It's not a good situation for patients, it's not a good situation for the emergency room staff," he said. "It's not something they should be dealing with, especially during a pandemic."

At the ER

Dr. Sean Wilde, an emergency department physician at Chinook Regional Hospital, said those working in the department have noticed an impact this spring and summer.

"As we get busier, especially with pandemic issues increasing, we need to spend time with critically ill patients, and sorting out the complicated issues," Wilde said. "But to be honest, the biggest impacts are probably on the patients themselves.

"We help when we can, we certainly do our best to help everyone, but we're not equipped for the follow-up that needs to be done to care for these people."

Google Meets
Google Meets

Increased demands on emergency room departments also end up costing more in the long run, Wilde said, which would seem to run counter to the provincial government's goal to save money on health care.

"By cutting some of these things, what the end result is is that doctors close practices or leave the province, then people inevitably come to the hospital where they need more expensive care," he said.

"And if their chronic health issues are not well-controlled — which, often they can't be if they can't see their doctor — then they're more likely to get sick and need hospital admission and care."

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

A spokesperson for Alberta's health minister said Alberta is working with the CPCN, doctors in Lethbridge and other partners to support recruitment and retention.

"Overall physician supply in the province continues to grow, including a small increase in the latest quarter to June 30," said Steve Buick in an email.

"But the pandemic has been very hard on physicians and there have been losses in Lethbridge and some other communities, although there have also been gains in some communities."

Buick said the province continues to work with the Alberta Medical Association and is hopeful a new agreement can be reached, adding it is currently reviewing input from the AMA on potential changes to the previous draft agreement.

But through it all, Pelech said he wonders how the situation in Lethbridge ever grew so grave.

"We talk about Canada as being this wonderful place that has universal health care. But is it universal health care when we have no access to it?" he said. "And what is that about? Why are we facing this crisis within a crisis?"

CBC Calgary has launched a Lethbridge bureau to help tell your stories from southern Alberta with reporter Joel Dryden. Story ideas and tips can be sent to joel.dryden@cbc.ca.

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