Olds revisiting committee to attract more doctors, citing unaddressed shortage

The provincial government says 17 physicians is enough, but the Town of Olds questions how they arrived at that figure. (Shutterstock - image credit)
The provincial government says 17 physicians is enough, but the Town of Olds questions how they arrived at that figure. (Shutterstock - image credit)

The Town of Olds, Alta. is backing a group of volunteers who are reviving a committee set up to attract and retain healthcare workers in the rural community, which sits between Red Deer and Airdrie.

People living there say the town doesn't have enough doctors to go around, despite assurances from the provincial government.

The town's chief administrative officer, Brent Williams, says there are currently 2,600 residents out of a population of around 9,500 on a waiting list for a family physician.

He says the government isn't calculating the town's needs in the right way and that the current tally of 17 doctors isn't enough.

"Our issue is man made by the method in which Alberta Health Services calculates physician need," said Williams.

"They are telling us that we have sufficient doctors right now, despite the fact we have 2,600 on a waiting list," he said.

Williams says there are local factors that aren't being taken into account, such as an above-average population of older seniors and thousands of students attending Olds College.

"We also have a very active hospital and we have surgical overflow from Red Deer hospital," said Williams. "Those patients stay behind for post-op care," he said.

Williams says Olds also collects people from surrounding communities, being the largest community between Red Deer and Airdrie.

"Our catchment area is 12,000 people ... but the economic area is 40,000 people and more people are coming here for healthcare services than being calculated by AHS," he said.

Dragan Grkic/Shutterstock
Dragan Grkic/Shutterstock

A statement emailed to CBC News from Scott Johnston, press secretary for Alberta's health minister, said: "The 2023 budget allocates $105 million over three years for the Rural Health Facilities Revitalization Program. This includes $75 million in additional funding for capital projects in rural Alberta.

"Budget 2023 also adds $158 million for workforce planning to grow the number of health professionals in our province, particularly in rural areas. Although Alberta continues to see growth in the number of physicians, there are still imbalances in doctor availability in some rural areas. The additional funding will help address these health care staffing challenges.

"We're working to increase supply for the long term with 2,500 new seats in training programs for health care professionals, and planning for expansion of our 2 medical schools with new satellite programs to train more physicians for rural practice."

To try and find its own solutions, the town was approached by a group of volunteers looking to restart the town's health professionals attraction and retention committee, a move which the town says it is backing and facilitating.

"Healthcare has changed a lot and we're in a different context. Our committee did a survey and that was one of their priorities," said volunteer Rita Thompson.

Thompson says it's not just about finding family doctors and that the committee's work will include a focus on mental health supports, availability and access to health care, and even issues like transportation for seniors.

"It would be great to have more primary care nurses and midwifery, for example, so it's not just about doctors," said Thompson. "It's about all kinds of health-care professionals. People are look for continuity of care from cradle to grave."

Thompson says the committee will even look at what other countries and provinces are doing to improve their health-care delivery and see what could be applied to their own situation.

The new committee hopes to have a volunteer board appointed by the summer.