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'The community is tired of waiting': Rally in Red Deer calls on province for health-care funding

Albertans protesting a lack of health-care funding in the central zone say they've been patient but the time has come for a "concrete plan" from the province.

Friends of Medicare rally held to ask Alberta government for a better plan

Physicians in Red Deer say they're sick of waiting for funding to expand the hospital and improve cardiac care. A couple hundred health-care workers and residents rallied this weekend to raise attention. (Kate Adach/CBC)

Albertans protesting a lack of health-care funding to the Red Deer Region Hospital Centre (RDRHC) say they've been patient with the province but the time has come for a "concrete plan" to address the needs of the community.

Friends of Medicare, a health-care advocacy group, held a rally in Red Deer Sunday calling for Alberta Health Services to meet a needs assessment by the province — which shows the hospital is short three operating rooms and more than 100 beds.

"I think what people are asking is for basically for [the needs assessment] to be readdressed and I think the community is tired of waiting," said Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare.

"There have been many studies that have been done on the community's needs, so it's time for action."

Friends of Medicare executive director Sandra Azocar says she hasn’t seen any positive move towards addressing health-care shortfalls within the central zone. (CBC News)

Azocar said the hospital's funding issues dates back decades to the former PC government, but residents are calling on the NDP government for a plan that "recognizes the urgency" in the central zone.

Dr. Paul Hardy, a general surgeon at the RDRHC, said the province have allocated $4.5 billion over the next four years for health-care projects in the province but "not a single dollar is specifically earmarked" for the central zone.

Dr. Paul Hardy, general surgeon at the Red Deer Regional Hospital (RDRHC), says cardiac patients in the Central Zone have a significantly higher mortality rate compared to those in Calgary or Edmonton. (Kate Adach/CBC)

Hardy said the hospital provides services to more than 450,000 Albertans, up from around 300,000 in the last 10 years. But many patients, specifically those with heart problems, are transported to Calgary or Edmonton for treatment.

"It's becoming increasingly difficult to deliver the care that central Albertans deserve," Hardy said. "We feel central Albertans have been shortchanged on the infrastructure spending over the last 10, 15 years."

'It's certainly a needs thing'

In 2016, doctors at the hospital sounded the alarm over AHS statistics suggesting heart attack patients in central Alberta had a 47 per cent higher mortality rate than people in Calgary in 2014-15.

The hospital can't perform cardiac catheterization, a procedure in which a hollow tube is inserted through an artery to the heart to assess and unblock restricted arteries.

Friends of Medicare held a rally in Red Deer on Sunday to voice concerns with a lack of funding from the province for health care services for the Red Deer Region Hospital Centre. (Red Deer Regional Health Foundation)

"One person that dies because they don't have access to health care is too much," Azocar said. "So it's not a quantifiable kind of thing, but it's certainly a needs thing."

"And we have a government who has said that they're committed to our public health-care system, and this is one of those communities that needs help."

Hardy said central Albertans also have the longest wait times for elective surgery in the province and the RDRHC has moved at least 5,000 operations to other facilities in the province.

'It didn't have to happen'

One cardiac patient who required transport to another city is also a doctor at the hospital.

Dr. Muhammad Shafiq had a heart attack during a shift at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre last year. With no cardiac catheterization facility in Red Deer, Shafiq was transported to Calgary for treatment.

Shafiq suffered a second heart attack on the way to Calgary, something his wife Kaniz said could have been avoided.

Dr. Muhammad Shafiq's heart attack during a hospital transfer highlighted the need for a cardiac catheterization lab in Red Deer. He attended the rally over the weekend with his wife. (Kate Adach/CBC)

"It's a blessing that he's alive," Kaniz said in August. "But it didn't have to happen, the second heart attack didn't have to happen had we have had the services here."

Red Deer City Councillor Ken Johnston also knows the struggles faced by patients face in the central zone.

Johnston's wife, Isabelle, suffered a major heart attack last November. She was transported and stabilized at the RDRHC, but without the facilities in Red Deer, she was transported to the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary.

Isabelle spent the next few months in the hospital where she died from complications related to her heart attack. Ken said he would spend hours every day by her side and saw the gaps in service at the RDRHC first-hand.

"The 100 days that I spent in the ICU … I would have seen maybe 20, 25 heart attacks [from the central zone]," Johnston said, adding patients waiting for rooms would be bedded in hallways or lounges.

In May, Red Deer City Councillor Ken Johnston's wife died from complications from a heart attack. Johnston said she was transported to Calgary after the heart attack and spent her final months in the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre. (Kate Adach/CBC)

"This is not just a cardiac issue where we have to put money into a building. We have to consider the rehabilitation costs by not doing this."

In a release, Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said the province acknowledges the need for "timely access to high quality cardiac care" in rural communities.

"Work is now underway on an approach to assess the needs of small urban communities when it comes to interventional cardiac services," Hoffman said. "This approach will be evidence-based and align with best practice both nationally and abroad."

Johnston said he would like to see a health-care conference held in Red Deer so the community can voice their concerns to AHS and find solutions to hospital's growing needs.

With files from Kate Adach

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