It was a big rally for a small town.
Hundreds of cars drove through the rainy streets of Pincher Creek in southern Alberta on Tuesday, hoping to draw attention to the town’s looming loss of rural health care.
As of Aug. 1, all nine of Pincher Creek’s doctors will no longer provide inpatient, emergency and obstetric services at their local hospital, which serves around 10,000 people from the town and surrounding area.
“The bottom line is we’re tired,” Dr. Samantha Myhr, one of the doctors who plans to discontinue service, said at Tuesday evening’s Rally to Rescue Rural Health Care.
“Around the province communities are in the same boat as us. They’ve been speaking up and the government hasn’t listened.”
For three years Pincher Creek has relied on a single surgeon who is on call 24-7, Myhr said.
She said changes introduced by the province have made it too uncertain for doctors to practice in many rural communities.
If the government can’t find replacements, it could be catastrophic.– Dr. Gavin Parker
“It is not sustainable to not be able to retract or retain physicians to Alberta,” she said.
Mayor Don Anderberg said he has heard from residents who are scared about their future health and wellbeing.
“I have had many conversations with people in our community who are extremely concerned about what health-care options they will have in Pincher Creek after Aug. 1, if any,” said Anderberg.
“Our doctors are potentially leaving in one month.”
The provincial government walked away from talks with doctors in February, terminated the existing master contract and unilaterally imposed changes to doctor billing and compensation
That led to a lawsuit by the Alberta Medical Association, which argued doctors’ charter rights were violated by not having access to third-party arbitration.
Some of the more contentious changes included pay cuts for work in hospitals and cuts to reimbursement for costly medical liability coverage. Some changes were rolled back by the government in late April, a bid to prevent doctors from leaving rural communities, but doctors have said they want to see a new agreement the government can’t scrap unilaterally.
A group of rural doctors surveyed 300 physicians across the province, and said they found 44 Alberta communities will see reduced services as some doctors say they are forced to choose between providing services at hospitals and keeping their own clinics running, and others leave their rural practices altogether.
Dr. Gavin Parker said shifts at the Pincher Creek hospital run the gamut — one night this week he responded to a heart attack, broken wrist and miscarriage, among other, more common, family medicine calls.
“If the government can’t find replacements, it could be catastrophic,” Parker said.
“We know that 80 per cent of the family residents are not interested to work in Alberta because of this and we think that’s squarely because of a lack of a negotiated contract with the doctors in this province.”
Ed Sinnott has lived in Pincher for nearly six decades and said the medical service in town is bar none.
In February, Sinnott had a heart event requiring two stents. He said if he’d had to drive to Lethbridge or Calgary that night, he’s not certain he’d still be living.
“It’s on the border of insanity, with what they’re doing to the doctors. The lack of trust is absolutely overbearing,” he said.
“It’s the rural centres that are the lifeblood of this province … we are, I can tell you, every bit as valuable as anyone that lives in an urban centre. We should not be pitted against each other, we all deserve the same kind of care.”
In the back of one pickup truck at Tuesday’s rally, a large wood placard read “[Health Minister Tyler] Shandro, why are you driving our docs out of town? Shame on you.”
AHS says it has a plan
Alberta Health Services has said it’s working to reduce the risk of service disruption and that it has the ability to bring in temporary physicians or physicians from other communities to ensure coverage. It said there is a comprehensive plan in place if the doctors do cease providing services.
Anderberg said to his knowledge the town’s doctors have not heard from the health minister in response to their concerns.
“If there’s another plan from the province for health care in our community we need to see that now. If you have no plan … you’d better talk to us sooner rather than later,” he said.
CBC News has reached out to the health minister’s office for comment.