Red Deer doctors join forces to demand province boost hospital funding

Calling the state of healthcare funding in central Alberta "dire," a group of doctors have taken the unusual step of forming a non-profit society to demand more help.

Patients sometimes wait 2 or 3 days for emergency surgery and many travel to Edmonton or Calgary for treatment

Doctors have formed the non-profit Society for Fair and Transparent Health Funding to Central Alberta, in an effort to expand the Red Deer Regional Hospital. (Red Deer Regional Health Foundation)

Calling the state of healthcare funding in central Alberta "dire," a group of doctors have taken the unusual step of forming a non-profit society to demand more help.

Physicians behind the Society for Fair and Transparent Health Funding to Central Alberta say the Red Deer Regional Hospital — which serves more than 400,000 central Albertans — is in desperate need of expansion.

A 2015, an Alberta Health Services report revealed the Central Zone had experienced population growth of more than 40 per cent in the previous decade and that the hospital needed 96 in-patient beds, 18 more emergency room beds and three additional operating rooms. Doctors say the need today is even greater.

"We're very challenged with our wait lists, with our in-patient beds. Getting people in for surgery is very difficult," said Dr. Paul Hardy, a general surgeon based at Red Deer Regional Hospital — the fourth busiest facility in the province.

"People are frustrated."

According to Hardy, while the population of the area has ballooned, infrastructure funding has not kept pace.

As a result, he says patients sometimes wait two or three days for emergency surgery and many have to travel to Edmonton or Calgary for treatment.

Dr. Paul Hardy, a general surgeon based at Red Deer Regional Hospital, says while the population the facility serves has ballooned in recent years, funding for expansion has not kept pace. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

 "Is it really a good idea to invest central Alberta tax payer dollars to build more infrastructure in Edmonton and Calgary — which has been going on for the past two decades — without putting the money where people can get the care close to home where its safe to do it?" he said.

First Gathering

The society — which is holding its first meeting March 6 at 7 p.m. at the Baymont Inn and Suites in Red Deer — will work to educate the public and advocate for more healthcare funding for the region.

"We need to see shovels in the ground and a project that involves not only expansion of the hospital in Red Deer but expansion of the services and types of services that we have here," said Dr. Kym Jim, an internal medicine specialist and nephrologist.

Jim says Red Deer has the expertise to provide treatment such as cardiac catheterization — where doctors insert a tube into an artery and use a tiny balloon to eliminate blockages.

Virtually all heart attack patients are immediately treated with cardiac catheterization in Calgary and Edmonton. But most patients in central Alberta are offered clot-busting IV drugs before being transferred out by ground ambulance or STARS air ambulance.

Dr. Kym Jim, an internal medicine specialist and nephrologist, says roughly 30 specialized clinics — including multi-disciplinary clinics to treat diseases such as COPD and Parkinson's disease — are needed at the hospital as well. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

According to Jim, roughly 30 specialized clinics — including multi-disciplinary clinics to treat diseases such as COPD and Parkinson's disease — are needed as well.

"It's an ongoing concern that we hear from patients," said Jim. "The real issue in all of this is that technology and times have changed . So services that were once the domain of Edmonton and Calgary can now be put in places where the population warrants it. Red Deer is one such area."

Personal Experience

Red Deer city councillor Ken Johnston had just started advocating for more healthcare funding in the fall of 2016 when his wife suffered a heart attack in Red Deer and together, they were thrust into the very healthcare system he was working to fix.

Isabelle, 59, had to be stabilized and airlifted to Calgary for life-saving cardiac catheterization treatment. That meant a delay of hours.

"The risk to her was elevated — far elevated — beyond what should have been the case had a cardiac catheterization service been there," said Johnston.

After being transferred back to the hospital in Red Deer, Isabelle spent several months in ICU but never recovered.

Red Deer city councillor Ken Johnston had just begun advocating for more healthcare funding in the central Alberta city when his wife, Isabelle, suffered a heart attack. She died after spending months in ICU. (Submitted by Ken Johnston)

"Every major organ failed and she passed away," said Johnston. "Her heart was beyond repair."

During the 100 days he spent by his wife's side in the intensive care unit. Johnston says he witnessed many other families going through similar experiences.

"This story is being repeated everyday in Red Deer," said Johnston, who plans to join the new society and continue his push for more healthcare dollars.

"Why is it that we are saying to our cardiologists and our orthopedic surgeons and so on, 'we are not going to give you the tools you need to save the lives you want to save?' We wouldn't do it with our police. We wouldn't do it with our fire people. But we're doing it with the very people we depend on to save our life and restore our health."

AHS Responds

In a statement emailed to CBC News, AHS says it is committed to improving healthcare services in Red Deer.

The statement reads in part, "We share the concerns that have been raised about access, wait times and capacity at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre (RDRHC) and we are actively working on a number of initiatives that will have an impact on demands at the hospital."

AHS goes on to say it is working to update the 2015 needs assessment report and expects to have that work complete in the next few months.