by Dr. Verna Yiu, AHS President and CEO
Every day, our healthcare teams carefully manage hospital beds to ensure Albertans get the care they need.
Aligning healthcare resources such as beds with patient demand has always been a key tenet of how we manage Alberta’s provincial healthcare system.
Let us be clear – there is no bed shortage in Alberta.
Our system is stable, safe, and available for any patient who needs it.
If a patient needs a bed – whether it be in an emergency department, or on a hospital ward – a space will always be available.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) is currently dealing with some temporary, short-term bed reductions at some of our hospitals.
This was not unexpected, as we emerged from an unprecedented pandemic that tested our healthcare system’s capacity and pushed our frontline teams to their limits.
We will be dealing with the impacts of the pandemic for some time.
This is a challenge being experienced across the country.
Our staff and physicians have worked extremely hard and deserve a break, meaning they are less available to work extra shifts than they would have been a year ago.
Many are travelling to see loved ones they have been unable to see in 20-odd months.
This means that temporary bed reductions are necessary at sites where staffing challenges are significant.
It’s important to point out that the vast majority of our beds remain open and available for patient care.
AHS has about 8,500 acute care beds across the province – 98.3 per cent of those beds are open and available for patients.
In addition, AHS has about 1,200 emergency department care spaces across the province. Of those, 98.9 per cent are open and available.
A key point is that there are times that a bed may be closed but there isn’t a patient in need of that bed.
During the summer months, when demand is lower, AHS has historically reduced beds in order to accommodate vacations and absences.
This occurs every summer to varying degrees.
For example, last week AHS closed seven emergency department spaces at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre due to some staffing challenges.
However, there are 49 spaces that continue to be available for patients who need them.
This includes space in the Minor Treatment Area to support those with less urgent needs like suturing of minor wounds, IV therapy and orthopedic-related care.
Similarly, five acute care beds have been temporarily closed at the Wainwright Health Centre, however, the site continues to fully operate 20 acute care beds which have capacity for patients requiring hospitalization.
In Hanna, where seven acute care beds have been temporarily closed, 10 continue to be available. The site has low occupancy, allowing for the temporary closure to occur without any impact to patients.
This is an important context to keep in mind when you hear about claims of a bed shortage.
In other instances, AHS has been able to alleviate the need for bed reductions or service reductions, by recruiting locums or redeploying staff and/or physicians to a site that is experiencing staffing challenges.
Again, this is common practice over the summer months.
For example, a last minute change in physician schedules allowed us to keep the emergency department open in Rocky Mountain House, avoiding a temporary closure due to a gap in coverage. We are always working towards these solutions.
Temporary bed closures are not unusual for AHS or any other health system, especially in the summer when staffing levels are historically lower as our healthcare workers take more personal time.
Emergency department bed reductions are infrequent but do happen from time to time.
As of July 22, there are just two AHS sites where patients are being diverted from Emergency Departments, on certain days and at certain times due to staffing challenges – Elk Point and Fort Vermilion.
This is not something AHS wants to happen, but these situations happen every year, especially in the summer. It’s not a result of a policy or resource change.
As AHS deals with these situations, it’s important to know that vacancy-filling and recruitment is always a priority for AHS and takes place all year, in real time.
Over the last year, AHS has filled more than 1,000 vacancies for registered nurses. Additionally, there are approximately 1,700 more RNs working in AHS today than there were in 2019.
AHS is pursuing recruitment strategies that aim to fill existing vacancies by the end of August or September, and earlier where possible. As the pandemic winds down, we are also moving staff who were working on the pandemic response into their original positions, this will help fill vacancies.
This all helps to ensure the healthcare system is safe – and there for those who need it.