Departing doctor worries Fort McMurray hospital staffing may 'jeopardize' lives

A departing doctor said the lack of a full-time emergency-room pediatrician is putting young patients rushed to the Fort McMurray hospital for urgent care at risk.

‘I think in my humble opinion that the patient might be exposed to some kind of risk and I don't accept that’

Dr. Ghassan Al-Naami is resigning from Fort McMurray's Northern Lights Regional Health Centre over fears their staffing protocols may jeopardize lives. (David Thurton/CBC)

A Fort McMurray pediatrician is resigning from the city's only hospital because he fears the lack of a full-time emergency room pediatrician will "jeopardize lives."

"I'm not going to wait until real bad things happen," Dr. Ghassan Al-Naami said Wednesday. "I cannot tolerate the consequences of this morally."

The doctor who specializes in pediatric cardiology and care of children with special needs is one of four pediatricians in Fort McMurray. He recently submitted his letter of resignation to the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre.

His office, located near the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, accepts patients and admits them to the hospital.

Al-Naami is also on call for emergencies one week a month.

​During that week, whenever he gets a call, Al-Naami must stop what he's doing and rush to the hospital.

Al-Naami said he has repeatedly told Alberta Health Services the hospital needs a dedicated physician for urgent cases. He argues that he and the three other pediatricians on staff can't effectively respond to emergencies if they're on call but not on site. 

In 2012, Alberta Health Services recruited Al-Naami from the United States in order, it said in a press release, to fill a gap in rural healthcare in the region.

Al-Naami, who has trained and worked in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States, will close his pediatric practice in February after four years in Fort McMurray and its surrounding communities.

'​I am always concerned'

A five-minute delay could be deadly, Al-Naami said.

"I am always concerned when I am on call," he said, "Am I going to get to this patient who needs me immediately?"

"By the time I arrive there is some time lag and that might jeopardize lives."

Al-Naami said no young patient during his time at the hospital has died or been harmed because they had to wait for a pediatrician.

A team of doctors and nurses is always on site when urgent cases arrive, Al-Naami said. However, he's warned hospital administrators about the risk when a specialist is absent.

"I think in my humble opinion that the patient might be exposed to some kind of risk and I don't accept that."

AHS Response

Alberta Health Services said in an email statement its physician on-call system ensures patients get help in a timely and effective manner 24-hours a day.

"This on-call system has been in place at the hospital for decades, is entirely appropriate, meets all Canadian healthcare standards, and does not put patients at risk," a statement from AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said.

The statement said AHS was only informed about Al-Naami's departure on Wednesday. It thanked Al-Naami for his service, wished him well and assured residents they will continue to receive high-quality pediatric care.

AHS also said two pediatric cardiologists regularly visit Fort McMurray to work with patients to make sure healthcare isn't disrupted.

AHS hopes to recruit another full-time pediatrician shortly. But no patient at the hospital has died or been harmed as a result of the on-call system, according to the statement. Al-Naami also confirmed no patient had an adverse outcome while he was there.

AHS and Al-Naami noted there's also a team of doctors, nurses, specialists and staff always on site when urgent cases arrive. However, Al-Naami said he has warned hospital administrators about the potential dangers when a young person arrives and a pediatrician is absent.

Worried parent

Kirsti Mardell's son, who was diagnosed with ADHD and suffers from ticks, is one of Al-Naami's 5,000 clients.

Kirsti Mardell is worried about what will happen when Fort McMurray has one less pediatrician. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

The mother worries what having one less pediatrician in a region that only has four will do to many families that rely on them.

"I saw a notice he's leaving Feb. 20 and I went into a panic mode," Mardell said.

Al-Naami said he will likely relocate to Edmonton or Vancouver and might visit Fort McMurray to provide fly-in services. 

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