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National shortage hampering efforts to find child psychiatrist for northwestern Alberta

Bonnie Smith and son Turner Smith. Turner lives with a rare chromosomal condition called Cri du Chat, or 5P- syndrome. Turner lost access to a psychiatrist when AHS shifted how doctors are paid in 2021. (Bonnie Smith - image credit)
Bonnie Smith and son Turner Smith. Turner lives with a rare chromosomal condition called Cri du Chat, or 5P- syndrome. Turner lost access to a psychiatrist when AHS shifted how doctors are paid in 2021. (Bonnie Smith - image credit)

Northwestern Alberta is still without a child psychiatrist, nearly a year after Alberta Health Services ended the stipend contract that allowed a doctor to work in the area.

AHS is trying to recruit a doctor to work in the region, but says the effort is being stymied by a national shortage of pediatric psychiatric specialists.

The psychiatrist who worked in the area previously did so with funding through a stipend program that AHS wrapped up in 2021.

AHS is phasing out the patchwork of stipend programs across the health-care system as part of its effort to make physician remuneration more consistent across the province.

It's a frustrating situation for Bonnie Smith, who spoke to CBC last year about her son losing access to a child psychiatrist and worried no replacement would come.

Smith lives in High Level, Alta. Her son Turner, 15, has a rare chromosomal condition called Cri du Chat, or 5P- syndrome.

Working with a child psychiatrist made a world of difference for not only Turner, but the whole family, Smith said.

Despite assurances from AHS that recruitment was underway, she said her son hasn't seen a psychiatrist since Dec. 15, 2021.

A general practitioner has been renewing prescriptions for Turner that were set by the psychiatrist, but Smith worries about her son not having a specialist to monitor his condition and make adjustments to medication if needed.

Smith has done what she can to advocate for her son herself, but now she's left wondering what AHS has in the works.

"There's no sign of anybody coming up there. There's been nothing," she said in an interview.

"I think the people making these decisions know that in the north we will just adjust because it's what we've always done, not just with our children but with every service."

AHS North zone has been trying to recruit both adult and child psychiatrists for the High Level and Peace River areas, and has also posted a visiting specialist role for High Level, AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in an email.

"AHS Medical Affairs continues to work tirelessly at filling these much-needed services throughout Alberta, despite the shortage of qualified child psychiatrists that is being felt on a national level," Williamson said.

He added that AHS attended a psychiatry conference in October as part of its recruitment efforts.

Virtual care and urgent options

Williamson said in-person child psychiatry in the North zone is currently only available in Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray.

He added that referrals are still being accepted to a virtual consultation program in North zone. The program was created in 2018.

For High Level specifically, Williamson said an Edmonton child psychiatrist has started offering virtual support for existing child psychiatry patients one day a week.

For urgent or crisis care, AHS works with families to get the child seen on a much shorter timeline, Williamson added.

The average wait for an in-person psychiatry appointments for children and youth in North zone is four months to a year, while the wait to see a doctor virtually is six to eight weeks.

For urgent or crisis care, AHS works with families to get the child seen on a much shorter timeline, he said.

Williamson said average wait times for other health zones are not available.

Lethbridge also losing pediatric psychiatrist

Williamson said Lethbridge is also losing its child psychiatrist.

The only pediatric psychiatrist working in person at Chinook Regional Hospital (CRH) in Lethbridge is leaving on Nov. 25 to work elsewhere in the province.

"Urgent, emergency and ongoing inpatient mental health care will continue to be available to pediatric patients at CRH, with Calgary child psychiatrists providing virtual support to attending physicians in Lethbridge," Williamson said.

He added that AHS has been actively recruiting psychiatrists to support young patients in the Lethbridge area for several years, and that the work is ongoing.