Health care in crisis

Written by Brenda Schimke

Pre-pandemic, the argument was that running a parallel private health care system along with a public system would free up much needed space in the public system and reduce wait times for everyone. It seemed ‘common sense’, then.

The pandemic busted that myth and everyone now knows the real problem in Canadian health care isn’t a lack of facilities or systemic inefficiencies, it’s simply a shortage of well-trained, engaged and appreciated health care workers.

On the hiring, retention and training of health care workers, our successive governments have failed miserably. We’ve ignored the inevitable retirement of baby boomers, we’ve demonized the workforce as ‘unionist’, and since the 1980s have reduced funding to universities to train doctors.

Our systemic doctor and nursing shortages have affected patient care. In hospitals with high patient-to-nurse ratios, nurses experience burnout, dissatisfaction and the patients experience higher mortality and failure-to-rescue rates.

Staff shortages have become obvious in rural Alberta with rotational closing of emergency rooms, the necessity for the Red Deer hospital to divert general surgeries to other areas of the province, and the number of communities seeking family doctors.

I’ve heard isolated stories from ER patients who’ve been treated rudely or inattentively by hospital  staff. Although unfortunate, it is certainly understandable.

In any work situation, happy employees are the best employees. When the government, we the people, treat our medical staff with disdain and disrespect for decades, no one should be surprised. Forced overtime and denial of vacation makes very unhappy employees. They are neither widgets nor slaves.

Peter Guthrie, UCP MLA for Airdrie-Cochrane recently said “don’t blame us for understaffed rural clinics”, because Alberta Health Services (AHS) is not responsible for staffing private family practices. Little wonder our medical system is collapsing when a government doesn’t understand its the government that sets the fees, tone and conditions that make it possible for communities to attract and retain family doctors.

Just this past week, an 86-year-old-woman in Calgary attacked by dogs, didn’t get ambulance attention and died. Premier Kenney didn’t take long to play the blame game, “the 30-minute ambulance wait for a Calgary woman attacked by dogs was not good enough.” He immediately hired an external consultant on a four-month contract to do a review.

This incident needed only a four-minute review. Calgary was on red alert; 18 ambulances were waiting to off-load patients at various medical facilities, all other ambulances were on other calls.

It screams of a shortage of doctors and nurses in our ERs and hospitals (government’s responsibility). It highlights that since the amalgamation of centralized ambulance dispatch in Calgary (government’s decision), the fire department doesn’t get simultaneous calls to respond.

And most importantly it shows how ineffective a corporate board is at running AHS. Their expectation that ambulance services be run at ‘peak efficiency’ all of the time means that it’s going to break and for the 86-year old woman, it broke badly. Emergencies, unlike making widgets or pumping oil, aren’t planned or controllable.

In contrast, larger municipalities continue to fund fire departments for the ‘unexpected’—understanding how inane it is to run an emergency service at peak efficiency.

When my late husband suffered his brain aneurysm, it was the fire department personnel who were first on the scene to start life-saving techniques—a team effort to save lives.

We will never ‘fix’ our health care system until we, and the politicians we elect, accept the reality that the cornerstone of any health care system is its people, not peak efficiency. It’s a fairy tale to believe further privatization, and the continued splitting of scarce human resources, will not negatively impact the quality and quantity of health care in Alberta.

Brenda Schimke
ECA Review

About the author

Brenda Schimke

Schimke is a Graduate with Distinction from the University of Alberta with a BCom degree. She has lived and worked in Alberta, BC and Ontario.