Pincher Creek doctors to continue hospital work after town council intervenes, for now

Doctors in Pincher Creek have agreed to continue working in the local hospital for a further 90 days after the town council intervened and convinced them to stay. 

Mayor lashes out at health minister, applauds doctors' 90-day extension

Pincher Creek Mayor Don Anderberg says doctors should be applauded for agreeing to stay on at the hospital in order to avoid a 'public health emergency.' (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Doctors in Pincher Creek have agreed to continue working in the local hospital for a further 90 days after the town council intervened and convinced them to stay. 

The doctors were to stop providing services at the hospital on Aug. 1 as part of a wider confrontation with the Alberta government after it tore up the master agreement with the Alberta Medical Association.

"To [Health Minister Tyler Shandro] and Alberta Health and AHS, it may look like you got someone to blink and cave through your actions, but the truth of the matter is our local doctors should be applauded for helping prevent an unmitigated disaster in health care in our community," said Mayor Don Anderberg, announcing the deal over Facebook. 

The mayor slammed the minister, the ministry and Alberta Health Services for failing to communicate with the community and with doctors. 

He said Shandro has not been honest about the impact that doctors leaving the hospital could have on the community and provided details from an update given to council from AHS. 

"They have partially covered hospital service for only two weeks in August and will not be able to do surgery or obstetrics. They may not be able to cover the emergency room 24 hours," Anderberg said of the situation prior to doctors agreeing to remain on the job. 

"This is a far cry from Minister Shandro stating on the six o'clock news that he would just move physicians into communities where doctors want to leave. We know how hard it is to get doctors to our community and keep them here."

Decision 'both easy and hard'

Dr. Samantha Myhr is one of the physicians who has agreed to stay at the hospital a bit longer and said this was the right decision.

"It's both easy and hard," she said.

"It's easy for us to want to stay on for our community when COVID is now just finally hitting us and seeing the kind of crisis that could happen if we were to go through things as planned. But it's also hard knowing, and actually already seeing, the response from both AHS and the minister, just that, you know, there was never a problem at all. We were just having issues with vacation or availability."

AHS sent out a news release Thursday morning after the mayor's announcement saying "some Pincher Creek physicians had indicated that they were going to not be available for shifts in August due to vacation and availability," and that it had found some doctors to take over missing shifts.

With the decision by local doctors to stay at the hospital, all shifts in August are now covered. 

Dr. Myrh was also threatened with an investigation if she failed to show up for a shift at the hospital that was scheduled by AHS, according to an email obtained by CBC News. 

"You have been assigned to rural medicine call in the Pincher Creek Health Centre August 26," reads the email, sent July 28 to Dr. Myrh from Dr. Michael Auld, the interim south zone medical director for AHS.

The email goes on to say Dr. Myrh should notify AHS within two days of her intention to cover the shift. 

"Failure to show up on the scheduled day(s) will result in a Part 6 investigation under the AHS Medical Staff Bylaws and a report to the CPSA for unprofessional conduct," it reads. 

New doctors needed

Myrh said the issue is not about physician pay but about trust and a lack of certainty about the future that makes it difficult for rural communities like Pincher Creek to attract and retain doctors. 

She said they have already lost two recruits who were going to join her practice after graduation because of the government's actions.

"Our single surgeon has been on-call 24/7 nearly 365 days a year for the last three years to maintain our surgical and obstetrical programs, and that's just not sustainable," said Myrh.

Anderberg blamed Shandro, AHS and Alberta Health for putting the community in a position where it might face a public health emergency and said there is no plan in place for increased ambulance service should the hospital not be fully operational. 

The mayor said the decision by the doctors offers a window of opportunity for everyone to "start talking and working together."

Myrh, meanwhile, said she's considering leaving and has started an application to move to another province.