Staffing woes leave operating rooms unavailable for elective surgeries in Red Deer, Alta.

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre has had a persisting shortage of anesthesiologists and nurses, which Alberta Health Services said means fewer operating rooms are performing elective surgeries this summer than in past years.

Some surgeries outsourced to Olds, Stettler while AHS works to staff up anesthesiologists and nurses

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre serves nearly half a million people in Central Alberta. It regularly operates over 100 per cent capacity (Heather Marcoux/CBC)

Some operating rooms at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre are going unused because there's no one to staff them. 

The centre has had a persisting shortage of anesthesiologists and nurses, which Alberta Health Services (AHS) said means fewer operating rooms are performing elective surgeries this summer than in past years.

One doctor said the strain on remaining staff and the delays for patients are unsustainable. 

"The people who are here and on the ground are doing the best they can. But there's just not enough bodies," Keith Wolstenholme, an orthopedic surgeon at the hospital, told CBC News.

He estimated about 50 fewer surgeries are being done every week since the end of June — a 30 per cent reduction in what he says normal volumes would be.

"It's honestly a very demoralizing place to work right now," said Wolstenholme. "Our staff are all maxed out … You can't get blood from a stone."

Alberta Health Services (AHS) said no surgeries have been postponed, but the vacant operating rooms are leading to an overall reduction in the number of elective procedures that can happen. 

Elective surgeries are planned in advance and include things like knee replacements or hernia repair.

AHS training and hiring staff to staunch problems

Kerry Williamson, a spokesperson for the department, said COVID-19 and the vacant anesthesiologists and nursing positions have strained Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre. 

"A number of strategies to address staffing challenges are underway, including running more ORs during the evenings and increasing hours at rural surgical sites like Olds and Stettler whenever possible in order to see more surgical cases," he said.

"This is an extension of our existing practices and an example of how the sites within the Central Zone routinely work together to respond to increased demand."

This year's departures left the hospital with 11.8 full-time equivalent and five part-time anesthesiologists. The hospital needs 16 to operate and is busy enough to employ 20. 

AHS is training three nurses at the hospital to work in the operating room and anticipates others who were sent to COVID-19 response units will return shortly. Three new anesthesiologists have been recruited and four more could soon join them. 

Recruit them, then retain them

The Alberta Medical Association said hiring is only half of the equation, and no long term solutions are possible unless those staff stay in the community. 

Paul Boucher, the president, said providing healthy work environments and showing strong collaboration with the government would encourage more people to work in Alberta. 

Both the doctors and nurses groups are engaged in bargaining with the province for a new work deal, processes that have often been fraught. 

"All these people that are getting their surgeries postponed are mounting on top of a lot of other patients that are coming out of the woodwork," he said. 

"In some ways [it] could turn into a perfect storm of increased demand and decreasing capacity."

Dr. Keith Wolstenholme, an orthopedic surgeon, says elective surgeries have been put on the backburner because of a lack of staff for the operating rooms. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

It's a concern for Wolstenholme, who said the hospital operating rooms typically run at full capacity, which makes scheduling extra surgeries later on nearly impossible. 

"Even if the pandemic was magically removed from the situation tomorrow, I think we'd still be facing staffing crises," he said.

"The cold reality is we are running far less than capacity and will never be able to catch up on these lost opportunities to do surgery."


Elise von Scheel is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Calgary and the producer of the West of Centre podcast. You can get in touch with her at


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