Partial closure of Alberta hospital prompts chief to renew calls for better nurse recruitment, retention

·3 min read
Bigstone Cree Nation Chief Silas Yellowknee says it’s “unacceptable” the Wabasca-Desmarais Health Care Centre will be closed overnight for nearly two weeks. (Submitted by Silas Yellowknee - image credit)
Bigstone Cree Nation Chief Silas Yellowknee says it’s “unacceptable” the Wabasca-Desmarais Health Care Centre will be closed overnight for nearly two weeks. (Submitted by Silas Yellowknee - image credit)

The chief of Bigstone Cree Nation is asking Alberta Health Services and the province to restore overnight service at the Wabasca-Desmarais Health Care Centre and do more to recruit and retain nurses in the community.

AHS announced on Wednesday that the centre will be closed overnight, from 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m., until June 21, because of a shortage of registered and licensed practical nurses.

"The change is temporary and we are dedicated to returning to normal operating hours as soon as possible," said Stacy Greening, chief zone officer with AHS North Zone, in a press release.

Bigstone Cree Nation Chief Silas Yellowknee said closing the emergency department at night for nearly two weeks is "not acceptable" because health care is a treaty right.

He said there are more than 3,500 nation members living on and off-reserve that rely on the health centre. It is located in the hamlet of Wabasca-Desmarais, about 325 kilometres north of Edmonton.

"We've lost a few young people now due to suicide, so this is really going to take a toll on my people as well, and my community as a whole, because where are you going to go?" he said Thursday in an interview with CBC News.

Yellowknee said he and the reeve of the local municipal district hope to meet with AHS officials about the emergency department closure on Friday.

AHS spokesperson Gayleen Froese said in an email that during the closure, EMS calls will be re-routed to Slave Lake, Athabasca and High Prairie.

Slave Lake is the closest of the three communities, about 124 kilometres away from Wabasca-Desmarais.

"I have got to put my hope in them that nobody dies during transport," Yellowknee said.

This is not the first time the hospital has been short-staffed.

According to AHS news releases, there have been six temporary periods of no physician coverage in the past five months, most recently in May.

Submitted by Silas Yellowknee
Submitted by Silas Yellowknee

Yellowknee said many nurses working in the community burned out during the pandemic and two came out of retirement to help combat the shortage.

He said he has raised concerns about the shortage of medical staff with Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson in the past and urged AHS to increase the compensation and incentives for doctors and nurses who work in the community.

Cameron Westhead, second vice president with the United Nurses of Alberta, said staff shortages have been causing closures and service reductions at healthcare facilities across the province, but especially in rural areas.

He said many factors are behind the nurse shortage, including pandemic burnout, not enough nursing graduates, people leaving to work in other jurisdictions and early retirements.

Nurses who are still working are being told to work overtime and denied personal leave days, he said, and he has heard stories of nurses who were unreachable by phone "being chased down in grocery stores" and told to go to work.

"It's just this horrible circumstance where everywhere you turn, health-care workers are not feeling valued, they're feeling overworked and they're looking for an escape route," he said.

In its news release, AHS said recruiting nurses is a challenge across North America and can be particularly difficult outside cities.

AHS says its recruitment team is aggressively pursuing both Canadian and internationally trained professionals, working to support flexible roles and consulting with schools to allow work experience in rural facilities.

Health Minister Jason Copping acknowledged that the health-care system is still strained, despite declining COVID-19 hospitalizations.

He said AHS has 800 more staff working in emergency departments than before the pandemic and the government "will keep adding capacity right across the system."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting