Staffing shortages worsen as patients transferred out of Red Deer for surgery

Red Deer doctors are warning patient care is at risk as staffing shortages worsen at the local hospital and people continue to be sent out of the region for care.

Regional hospital was without several key specialists for hours on Sunday night

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)

Red Deer doctors are warning patient care is at risk as hospital staffing shortages deepen and sick people continue to be sent out of the region for care.

The latest surgical diversion protocol has been in place at the Red Deer Regional Hospital since the end of April. On Sunday night, the facility had no cardiologists or internal medicine specialists on duty for a number of hours until someone could be brought in on an urgent basis.

Doctors say there was no plastic surgeon on call  that night, either.

"All of these are unprecedented in my experience," said Dr. Mike Weldon, a Red Deer emergency room physician.

"You do have to question the ultimate impact on patient safety. So it's very concerning for me."

The Red Deer Regional hospital, which serves nearly half a million central Albertans, routinely runs over capacity due chronic bed shortages.

The UCP government has promised a $1.8-billion expansion, but the beleaguered hospital is facing increasing troubles holding onto staff.

According to Weldon, the hospital has been without a cardiologist intermittently ­­­­over the past couple of weeks. He says a number of factors are driving the staffing shortages, including burnout, COVID-19 and the acrimonious relationship between health-care workers and the provincial government.

"I am not a cardiologist. I am not an internist. I am not a plastic surgeon. I need help to look after you when you come in," he said. "And when that help is 90-minutes away, sometimes that makes a difference."

Dr. Mike Weldon, a Red Deer ER physician, is worried about patient safety as the hospital deals with a shortage of staff. (Submitted by Dr. Mike Weldon)

Recruitment efforts underway

Alberta Health Services says it is working to recruit staff for the hospital.

In a statement emailed to CBC News, AHS spokesperson James Wood said the surgical diversion, which began on April 29, continues. As of Monday morning, 27 patients had been transferred to Calgary and Edmonton as well as smaller hospitals in the region.

Wood said the diversion is due to a number of factors, including a shortage of clinical specialists who support the general surgery program. Procedures such gallbladder surgeries, bowel resections and appendectomies could be impacted.

The health authority says cases that cannot be safely transferred continue to be handled in Red Deer.

For patients who arrive at our hospital on nights like that, it's potentially very scary.- Dr. Keith Wolstenholme

The additional gap in specialist coverage lasted from 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, according to Wood, but no patients had to be sent out of the zone as a result.

"Efforts include ongoing recruitment to fill three general surgery clinical assistant positions … as well as three positions for clinical assistants for anesthesia. Recruitment is also underway for cardiology and general internal medicine physicians, with additional physicians being sought for the emergency department as well," Wood said.

Dr. Kym Jim, an internal medicine specialist and nephrologist at the Red Deer hospital, says he's never seen shortages like this before.

"Really, the whole system is working on the goodwill of people to go beyond to make the coverage possible. But there's only so many times that you can tap into that," said Jim, who is also a spokesperson for the Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta.

Dr. Kym Jim is concerned the staffing shortages at Red Deer Regional Hospital are only going to get worse. He says some doctors are reducing their hours or quitting for less demanding jobs elsewhere. (Jennifer Lee/CBC News)

According to Jim, Red Deer's hospital doesn't have the support teams that other large hospitals have, including medical students and residents as well as physician assistants.

"We have certainly seen specialists leave the area.… What concerns me is we have the threat of more people saying they're looking at leaving if things don't change."

Dr. Keith Wolstenholme, an orthopedic surgeon in Red Deer, says there is no end in sight to the troubles.

"We haven't had proper capacity for 20 years in Red Deer, and because of that, we haven't been able to hire enough people — enough physicians, enough nurses, enough respiratory therapists — because we're just limited by our physical capacity," he said.

"For patients who arrive at our hospital on nights like that, it's potentially very scary. It's also very scary just for the medical community at large and the central zone at large in that we're facing pretty significant human resource deficits with no good imminent solution. And I think that is very scary."


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.