Lethbridge doctors hope life-saving cardiac treatment comes to their hospital soon

As pressure mounts on Alberta Health Services to provide a life-saving heart treatment in central Alberta, doctors in the southern part of the province say patients there would also benefit from having access to cardiac catheterization closer to home

So-called 'cath labs' allow doctors to perform heart treatments such as angiograms

Dr. Lee Oviatt, internal specialist at Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge, says a cardiac catheterization lab would offer southern Albertans equal health care to those living in Calgary and Edmonton. (Submitted by Dr. Lee Oviatt)

As pressure mounts on Alberta Health Services to provide a life-saving heart treatment in central Alberta, doctors in the southern part of the province say patients there would also benefit from having access to cardiac catheterization closer to home.

So-called "cath labs" — staffed by specially trained cardiologists — allow doctors to perform heart treatments such as angiograms, and eliminate deadly blockages.

An AHS report, set to be released this week, shows both Red Deer and Lethbridge could support the time-sensitive and gold standard treatment, which is currently only provided in Calgary and Edmonton.

"I think this will be a sign to our patients that the lives of a patient in Lethbridge or rural Alberta are considered as highly as the lives of patients elsewhere," said Dr. Lee Oviatt, internal medicine and respirology specialist at Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge.

Procedure would free up beds

According to Oviatt, cardiac mortality rates are not as high in southern Alberta as they are in the central part of the province, but patients can face long waits for less urgent cardiac catheterization procedures and beds are taken up by those waiting to be transferred to Calgary.

He estimates Chinook Regional Hospital sends at least two patients per day to Calgary for the treatment and they wait an average of three to four days to be transferred. A catheterization lab could change that.

"We're looking at diminished transport costs [and] diminished in-patient days. Really it will be a benefit for the system, from the cogs of the system to patient outcomes," he said.

Lab would attract more cardiologists

Dr. Sayeh Zielke, the only cardiologist in Lethbridge, is encouraged health officials now recognize a need that physicians in southern Alberta started quietly advocating for 10 years ago.

She worries about her patients and their families, who are hours away from standard, life-saving treatment.

"It would be such a wonderful thing if we could provide the same care that we can provide in Calgary," said Zielke.

Dr. Sayeh Zielke is the only cardiologist in Lethbridge, Alta. (Jodi O Photography)

"We are trying to provide the best services that we can with the constraints that we have. Do I wish those constraints were not there? Yeah, absolutely."

In addition to bringing a critical heart treatment closer to home for patients and families, Zielke said a catheterization lab would also attract more cardiologists — an ongoing struggle in the region.

"By having a cath lab we can attract talented individuals who are trained in that field," she said. "It would really help improve the level of services and the cardiac care that we provide." 

No formal commitment

Alberta's health minister Sarah Hoffman has publicly acknowledged the need for improved cardiac care outside of Alberta's two major cities.

"When we look at our regional hospitals … we want to ensure we keep people as close to home and that includes making sure we have well-resourced regional hospitals," said Hoffman, who was questioned about the lack of cardiac catheterization in Red Deer at last week's Alberta Urban Municipalities Association convention.

"I imagine somebody from Lethbridge is wanting to ask a similar question … because we know that there are additional cardiac needs in those communities."

While the health minister acknowledges the gap in cardiac services, neither Alberta Health Services nor Alberta Health have provided a firm commitment that a catheterization lab will be built in either Lethbridge or Red Deer. AHS said cath labs are being considered as new cardiac plans are designed.

In a written statment, AHS said, "introducing these services requires infrastructure, bed supports, community supports and specialized cardiac programs such as cardiac rehabilitation and Cardiac Critical Care Units."

A spokesperson said AHS will meet with ​doctors in Lethbridge this fall to discuss the report and plan next steps.


Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.


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