High demand led to cutting back Calgary urgent care hours: AHS

Watch: With temporary closures and reduced hours at some Calgary-area health care facilities, there are renewed calls for solutions to shortages and increased demand. Adam MacVicar reports.

A “significant increase in demand” led to the urgent care centre at the South Calgary Health Centre (SCHC) to shorten the hours it opens, according to an Alberta Health Services spokesperson.

On Tuesday, AHS announced urgent care at SCHC was closing at 8 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. nightly, saying the change was to help ensure care could continue “within the current staffing model.”

“At this time, we are unable to increase staffing at (the urgent care centre) due to workforce challenges.”

On Wednesday, AHS confirmed staffing levels at SCHC have remained constant and are in-line with pre-pandemic levels, but “the issue is a very significant increase in demand.”

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South Calgary urgent care centre cutting hours due to staffing levels

“The urgent care centre is currently seeing an average of 145 patients per day (in May 2022), which is a 26 per cent increase compared to 106 per day (in Jan 2022) and an 18 per cent increase from pre-pandemic levels of 120 per day,” James Wood told Global News in a statement.

Wood added the number of patients coming to the South Calgary urgent care after 8 p.m. has almost doubled compared to January 2020 levels, as well as the average number of patients waiting to be seen at 10 p.m.

“Modifying hours of operation is a temporary measure only taken as a last resort,” Wood said. “There are no current plans to reduce hours at other facilities in the Calgary Zone.”

The president-elect of the Alberta Medical Association said the closure of emergency, acute and urgent care departments across the province is the latest in a snowballing that started with things like surgery backlogs.

“The snowball effect is everywhere,” Dr. Fredrykka Rinaldi told Global News. “But with urgent care, what it means is those people who do not have say a primary care physician will either seek help somewhere else.”

“And it becomes a very difficult environment to work in when your patients or clients come in frustrated and angry already, and you’ve never even seen them.”

Ten hours without ambulances

The amount of time ambulances weren’t available to Calgarians has increased ten-fold when compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to new numbers released by the Opposition they received from a freedom of information request.

In April and May 2022, there were 10 hours in both months when an ambulance wasn’t available, also known as a red alert. In April and May 2019, those months had just one and 1.6 hours on red alert, respectively.

January 2022 saw eight hours of red alerts, February had more than four hours, and March and June had more than six each.

“Albertans should know that when they pick up the phone and call an ambulance, that someone’s on the other end and that there’s an ambulance ready to respond to the call. And we’re at a point now in Alberta’s largest city where there are hours in every month where that’s just simply not the case,” Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley said Wednesday.

The data from the province showed the incidences and total monthly durations of red alerts has fluctuated throughout the pandemic, with the total duration reaching a peak of 14 hours in September 2020. But an upward trend appears to have emerged since July 2021.

Wood said calls to 911 for EMS in 2022 is up 30 per cent over 2018-2019 — a major contributor to the increased demand for ambulances.

“This increase in calls includes effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid concerns, and emergency calls related to people returning to regular levels of activity,” he said.

He also said staff illness and fatigue are contributing to EMS challenges, adding it’s not unique to Alberta.

“The key factor in EMS red alerts remains the amount of time EMS crews must remain in hospital Emergency Departments waiting to safely transfer care,” the AHS spokesperson said.

Notley noted the times it takes to dispatch an ambulance have also “exploded.”

“This year, it’s taking more than twice as long (as AHS’s targets), to over three minutes to dispatch 90 per cent of calls,” the MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona said.

She also noted that cuts to two urgent care centres in the Calgary region that have had to trim back hours – Airdrie and the South Calgary Health Centre – are going to have systemic effects.

“That means that there are more people with injuries, more people with illnesses, more sick kids who are forced as a result to head off to a Calgary emergency room. And that’s where we will see (the crisis with) our ambulance and our hospital systems growing,” Notley said.

What’s the prescription?

Notley laid the state of the health care system at the feet of the governing UCP and called out the relative silence in the most recent unfolding crisis in the system.

She also called on the Alberta government to address the ambulance shortages with a trio of tactics: get paramedics off 89-day contracts and onto permanent positions, guarantee paramedics will finish their shifts on time, and “wake up” to the burden of the drug poisoning crisis is having on both EMS and emergency departments by providing harm reduction services.

“You can often find the best solutions by speaking to the people who are on the frontlines doing this work themselves.”

Earlier this year, the province and Alberta Health Services announced a 10-point plan to add EMS capacity and ensure critical patients receive prompt care.

The plan included addressing fatigue, transferring, delaying or not responding to some low priority calls, hiring more paramedics, and not using paramedics for inter-facility transfers. And ten new ambulances are being added to Calgary in September.

The province also increased EMS funding in its 2021 budget.

Wood said AHS is actively recruiting for all health services provincewide.

“AHS has 206 more staff working in our EDs today than we did a year ago, and 806 more staff in our EDs than in April 2018. We have seen an increase of about 1,900 registered nurses on staff,” the AHS spokesperson said.

Rinaldi noted physicians in the province – including those in urgent care centres – haven’t had a contract with the province for the past two years.

“What we need is stability – that would keep physicians here and attract physicians here. We also need to be part of the solution,” she said, noting fixing a crumbling system won’t be a quick or easy fix.

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“Physicians have been intimately involved in the health care system, so they understand the practicalities of solutions that may look good on paper, but perhaps may not turn out so well moving down the road.”

Notley said the health care system’s symptoms have her concerned, noting a provincial election in the spring.

“I’m very, very concerned that if Alberta’s health care system is subjected to another four years of the profoundly disruptive, damaging and sometimes outright hostile management that we have seen from the UCP, I’m not entirely convinced that it will be salvageable,” she said.

–with files from Adam MacVicar, Global News

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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