The introduction of a new centralized digital record-keeping system has nine northern Alberta hospitals temporarily reducing their capacities for acute-care patients.
In a statement this week to CBC News, Alberta Health Services said capacity is being adjusted at select sites for two weeks to accommodate the launch of Connect Care.
The changes come as Alberta contends with rapidly surging cases of COVID-19 and health-care workers issue renewed warnings about the imminent strain on frontline care.
"Rigorous mitigation strategies" will ensure patient care is maintained, anda previous launch of the electronic record-keeping system in other facilities went smoothly "in spite of the pandemic," AHS North Zone spokesperson Logan Clow said in the statement.
"This decision was not taken lightly," Clow said. "The safety of our patients and staff is at the heart of every decision we make."
Starting Saturday, Connect Care will fully launch at 24 sites across northern Alberta. A total of 31 sites are fully or partially part of the third wave of implementation for the new system, which will eventually replace paper record keeping at all AHS sites across the province.
During the next two weeks, AHS will temporarily adjust acute-care capacity at:
High Level Northwest Health Centre.
Beaverlodge Municipal Hospital.
Fort Vermilion St. Theresa General Hospital.
Manning Community Health Centre.
Peace River Community Health Centre.
Spirit River Central Peace Health Complex.
High Prairie Health Complex.
McLennan Sacred Heart Community Health Centre.
Grande Prairie Queen Elizabeth II Hospital.
AHS didn't say how many inpatient beds will be made unaccessible by the launch. All the affected sites will continue to operate and impact on patient care will be minimal, it said.
"Our site and zone leadership continue to regularly monitor capacity at these nine sites, and our teams are working to ensure the transfer of patients to alternate care sites is safely managed," Clow said.
AHS provided additional details on operations at High Level's hospital, the Northwest Health Centre.
Beginning Saturday, hospital capacity and services will be reduced for two weeks for all inpatient services, including labour and delivery, surgery and medical services. Surgical services will be reduced to 24/7 emergency services, AHS said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, three patients were in the ER department awaiting admission into acute care, AHS confirmed. Clow said two of them will be moved to another AHS facility because they need a higher level of care.
All sites included in the launch will resume full operations on April 23, AHS said.
Alberta Health Services said the reduced capacity will allow staff time to adjust to the new system, one that will ensure "high-quality care is delivered" across the province.
The move from paper to digital
Connect Care has been years in the planning and carries a $1.39-billion total price tag. The province has committed $400 million toward the project.
Some staff have been training for months or years on how to navigate the new technology, which is expected to be introduced at all AHS clinics, hospitals, pharmacies and medical laboratories by 2023.
The system will move hospitals, doctor's offices, clinics and labs away from paper charting to an online portal that will allow health care professionals and patients to see all patient information in one place.
It is designed to replace more than 1,300 independent health information systems now being used across the province.
"It will give a patient's health-care team a more complete picture of their health history, access to consistent information on best practices, resources at their fingertips and will be able to communicate with patients and each other more easily," Clow said.
The first round of implementation took place in November of 2019, largely at sites in the Edmonton health zone.
The second wave was put on hold for five months due to the pandemic but eventually launched in October of 2020 at sites in Edmonton and northern Alberta.
AHS said it reduced capacity at some sites during the previous launches.
"We experienced a very smooth launch in October 2020 of Wave 2, in spite of the pandemic and feel we can facilitate the same kind of experience for Wave 3," Clow said.