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Rural southern Alberta community desperate for doctor shortage solution

Rural southern Alberta community desperate for doctor shortage solution
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Milk River is the last stop before the Canada-U.S. border to get routine or emergency medical care.

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In 2023, the Milk River emergency department closed 30 times lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days. So far in 2024, there’ve already been nine closures.

It’s having a major impact for Gail Maudsley and her husband who recently chose Coutts for their retirement.

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“That was one of our tick-off points for moving here, is the hospital is 18 km away. That’s doable. But, when it’s closer to 85 kilometres away, it’s a little rougher, especially for emergencies,” said Gail.

Around six in the morning on January 23rd, Russell was having an emergency. Gail drove him to Milk River.

“After three times of telling us the doctor was coming in, at 11:30 a.m., they said ‘No, the doctor isn’t coming in,’” said Gail.

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They were sent kilometres away to the Raymond Health Centre. There they waited another 5 hours to be seen.

“They did the best with what they had, and when you don’t have, you can’t do,” said Russell.

In 2023, Milk River lost its only doctor who was also Gail’s family doctor. She now has to travel to Calgary for care.

“Until something is more stable down here, I’ll continue to travel to Calgary,” said Gail.

From May to August 2023, there was no permanent physician, not until Dr. Peiter Meyer started.


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For the last six months, he’s been working alone, on call 24 hours a day.

“That ties me down a lot, for example. I’m not allowed to be more than 10 miles (minutes) away from the hospital,” said Dr. Meyer.

Dr. Meyer explained on sick days or days off, “AHS cannot always find someone to come here in time, so yes, then you end up with a closure.”

Larry Liebelt, the mayor of the town of Milk River said there has been uncertainty for the future of healthcare with all the closures.

“The one thing that is always been brought to my attention is, this is just a segway into closing the hospital which is just a concern of seniors and everyone in town,” said Mayor Liebelt.

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The population of Milk River sits around 900, not including surrounding villages, Hutterite colonies, and a large community of farmers.

“And when things go wrong here, it goes wrong really quickly,” said Dr. Meyer.

In 2010, community members formed Milk River Health Professionals’ Attraction & Retention Committee.

Scott MacCumber, committee chair and the mayor of the village of Coutts said when Dr. Meyer started, he was supposed to have a physician assistant and nurse practitioner join him.

“At the time we’re looking really good as far as staff numbers, but that just didn’t work out,” said Mayor MacCumber.

“That’s almost an ideal ratio to have three people here but finding two other docs to come and live here, it’s proving to be difficult,” said Dr. Meyer.

According to AHS, a second doctor began working in Milk River on January 31st.

In a statement to Global News, AHS explained, she will have to pass a three-month supervised practice assessment to continue working.

As for recruiting, AHS said, “We currently have several NPs and a physician assistant (PA) we are hoping to hire for as many hours as they are willing to work for the Milk River Health Centre.”

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For Dr. Meyer and his patients, they say, they’ll believe it, when they see it.

In a statement to Global News, AHS said:
“During the temporary closure periods, nursing staff remain on-site to provide care for long-term care residents and physician support is available by phone.

“EMS services are prepared to respond to emergency events and support inter-facility transfers to neighbouring sites. Patients are asked to call 911 if they have a medical emergency. EMS services are prepared to respond to emergency events and support inter-facility transfers to neighbouring sites. Patients seeking care can access emergency services at the Raymond Health Centre (60 km) and Chinook Regional Hospital (87 km) in Lethbridge.

“Residents are reminded to call Health Link at 8-1-1, which is available 24/7 for non-emergency health-related questions. Individuals requiring non-emergency medical care are also encouraged to call their family physician.

“AHS is experiencing recruitment challenges across the province, and in particular, with physicians in areas outside of main urban centres. Rural vacancies have contributed to a lack of sufficient resources in rural and regional communities.

“The health centre is an important part of the community, and we value the care provided inside its walls. Maintaining health services and our physician workforce remains a top priority. Through this challenging time, we appreciate the continued patience of the community, and their continued commitment to healthcare.”

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