IN this file photo Dr. Brian Muir, North Zone medical director, AHS speaks at the Grande Prairie Regional Hospital in Grande Prairie, Alta. on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022. Muir recently updated the City of Grande Prairie with an update on staffing level of AHS in the North Zone. (Photo by Jesse Boily)Jesse Boily

Original Published 15:59 Jun 10, 2022

By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Rural zones in Alberta are short of doctors as well as nurses, reports Dr. Brian Muir, Alberta Health Services medical director of North Zone.

Muir gave City of Grande Prairie council an update on physician retention and attraction in the city and surrounding areas on May 16.

“All the rural zones are short nurses and short doctors,” he said.

He told city council the physician situation is not new to the area.

“We’re roughly the same, which in my opinion is still far short of what we need,” said Muir.

He said that in 2021 Grande Prairie saw approximately 13 physicians leave, and in 2022, 11 physicians have come to the city. Muir said he is expecting eight more this year.

Muir noted that AHS is acutely aware that the city and region is short on family physicians. He said and the North Zone is seeing about a 20 per cent vacancy rate in rural areas.

In Grande Prairie, he said they have approximately 43 family physicians and need about 10 more.

About two-thirds of the family physicians are also working in the hospital, Muir noted.

“We are always in a cycle of losing and gaining doctors, and unfortunately, we never seem to catch up,” South Peace Professional Attraction and Retention Committee (SPPARC) Chair Kate Potter told Town & Country News. SPPARC, formerly the South Peace Physicians Attraction and Retention Committee, but rebranded to include nurses and other health care professionals.

“There is a significant shortage within our region, and it’s not just isolated to (us) and that’s part of the issue too is that all across the province and the country.”

Potter said she is currently in conversation with approximately four doctors, some of whom are currently finishing their residency.

She noted the shortage in rural areas like Beaverlodge affects the whole region.

“If we get someone, for example, in Beaverlodge that helps us in Sexsmith that means that there’s less need in our region.”

Muir said that AHS is trying to make more hires and has included incentives to attract medical professionals to the North zone.

Potter, who is mayor of Sexsmith, said SPPARC is looking to create a “homegrown campaign.”

“We know that a lot of people end up coming back to the area they grew up in.

“If they’ve been in rural before, they’re more likely to go into rural than someone who has never experienced rural life before,” said Potter.

She said the shift sees SPPARC working with high school students to consider the medical field. 

City coun. Kevin O’Toole asked Muir where the doctors that were leaving the city were heading to. Muir replied there were a number of reasons, common to all areas of Alberta: Some were moving to bigger cities and others going to smaller communities.

City mayor Jackie Clayton asked if AHS would consider doing exit interviews to gather more information on why physicians are leaving the area.

Muir said physicians’ reasons may often be personal.

“I think that people who are happy and content stay where they are, and people who are unhappy for whatever reason, will search for happiness somewhere else,” said Muir.

SPARCC said physicians are looking beyond the financial incentives to stay in the community.

“What doctors really want is a great community to live in where their families can get involved and get connected and that there’s a work-life balance,” said Potter.

City coun. Chris Thiessen said he had heard complaints from health care workers regarding the culture of work at AHS, stating many have suffered from burnout. He noted that some had even left the field to find other work and, in some cases, even left the province.

“I think it’s fair to say that our workforce is tired, they’re exhausted, but that’s why we went into this, said Muir.

“We didn’t go into this business just to take a holiday when there’s a pandemic.”

Coun. Thiessen asked how AHS could improve the workplace.

“We are going to continue doing business; there’s no good answer for your question,” said Muir.

Meanwhile, AHS is working to address a 20 per cent vacancy rate for nurses in the area.

“We are regularly recruit nursing staff and physician staff from out of country,” said Muir.

Muir warned city council that the western world is seeing a shortage of anesthesiologists. “It is going to become more and more of an issue as the years go by,” he said.

SPPARC is looking at additional ways to attract medical professionals and recently partnered with the Grande Prairie Chamber of Commerce’s digital services team to advance its online presence, said Potter.

This item reprinted with permission from Town & Country News, Beaverlodge, Alberta