A new general surgeon and a family medicine physician will be practicing in St. Paul in the new year. Alberta Health Services (AHS) announced they have recruited the doctors with the help of government and community partners.

The new general surgeon, currently in Saskatchewan, is expected to start in St. Paul in February. Recruiting for this position began last month after the town’s previous general surgeon announced a move to Cold Lake.

Dr. Joe Stander, speaking for AHS North Zone, said St. Paul’s present surgeon Dr. Iftikhar Ahmad was the only qualified applicant for a position that was advertised for Cold Lake. 

“It’s very fortunate that St. Paul actually got somebody to apply for the position and she did get it. They’ve lost a GP and they gained one back; they’re in the process of losing a surgeon, but they gained one back,” Stander said. 

“That doesn’t mean they’re content with the numbers. They are still looking for more GPs, as is everybody else.”

The new GP is relocating from the United Kingdom. Stander says his wife is a dialysis nurse, and the fact that St. Paul is the only hospital in the region with a dialysis unit created an opportunity for both of them to work there.

Stander said there is a need for doctors across the region. Elk Point is losing two of its three physicians in the near future, with one retiring and one leaving the area.

Cold Lake – Bonnyville – St. Paul MLA David Hanson said the successful recruitments for St. Paul are good news, “but we’ve got a lot of work yet to do.”

“We need to recognize that people up here deserve access to healthcare. And it’s something I’ve been working very hard on for over five years, and I’ll continue to do that. But it’s just got to happen,” Hanson said.

He said recruitment has always been a problem in northeastern Alberta, and the local people have been subjected to a “revolving door” of physicians coming and going. The challenge, he said, is to determine what the barriers are and try to address them.

“Folks have to recognize the contribution of northeastern Alberta to the rest of the province and the rest of the country,” he said. “There’s a couple of things here I’m working on with the ministry right now. And once those are figured out, we’ll make those announcements.”

On November 10, Hanson and Cold Lake mayor Craig Copeland met with doctors to discuss the need for a surgical assistant at Cold Lake Health Centre. Other doctors are taking time from their clinic duties to rotate as assistant, but that is costing the equivalent of 6,000 patient visits per year. 

Cold Lake City Council will send a letter to AHS supporting the surgical assistant request. It would not require creating a salaried position, Stander said, but would be billed to Alberta Health on a fee-per-service basis.

“The surgical assistance is really eating up a lot of time that we are not able to spend at the clinics,” he said, “and that’s one of the reasons why waiting times are so long.”