“Rural health care under siege!”

MD of Bonnyville reeve Greg Sawchuk admitted the title for a regional physicians’ presentation on March 11, was a bit dramatic. But then the doctors spoke.

A dozen practitioners from St. Paul, Bonnyville, Cold Lake, and Lac La Biche laid the facts bare. Rural doctors are working dangerously long hours. Efforts to attract new doctors are failing, with one position going five years without a single applicant. All hospitals are understaffed, and doctors are burning out. 

Some are due to retire, with no prospect of replacement. The situation will become worse.

The Alberta government’s solution: cut their pay.

Suddenly, attracting physicians isn’t our biggest problem. Now we’re struggling to keep the ones we have. “Siege” sums it up pretty accurately.

The government has signalled they are prepared to budge, but so far they haven’t budged much. Asked if the doctors have a Plan B up their sleeves, Cold Lake physician Joe Stander answered bluntly: “We will not punish patients,” he said. “We won’t consider job action. But some are talking about leaving.”

So no, the doctors won’t go on strike for more money and more help. But they have their own health, their own families, and their own businesses to think about, and they are within their rights to find better opportunities elsewhere—or, as at least one doctor indicated, to leave the profession altogether.

Well over half of the 300 attendees at the meeting appeared to be seniors. These are people who are more susceptible to illness and injury, and people who are more likely to present as “complex” appointments at the doctor’s office. They are the people who will suffer most under the government’s plan, which limits appointments to 10 minutes and reduces the incentive for doctors to spend more time with patients.

With the Covid-19 pandemic just starting to kick in, the government has announced they will postpone the pay cut. File that under “thanks for nothing.”

And to deal with the doctor shortage, they have introduced “Babylon,” a smart-phone app that uses Artificial Intelligence to allow patients—think of your father or your grandmother—to interact with a doctor via a cell phone.

There might well be a place for innovations like Babylon in the larger spectrum of healthcare. But for rural seniors who depend on real care from a trusted family doctor, it’s of no use whatsoever.

MLA David Hanson was not able to attend the meeting. Had he been there, he would have heard a lot of people questioning whether the government even cares about Alberta’s rural population, especially in the northeast. 

If rural MLAs have the ear of the premier and the cabinet, their message must be clear: stop the siege. And if the people in the powerful seats don’t listen, they will put MLAs in the uncomfortable position of choosing where their loyalties lie: with the party, or with the people.