Doctors sound alarm over ‘insufficient’ personnel at Calgary’s Tom Baker, new cancer centre

Two dozen Calgary doctors are raising the alarm on cancer care in Calgary with the sudden resignation of “multiple” medical physicists, including the director of medical physics, at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.

According to a letter leaked online, pay and workload were the primary concerns.

“These individuals are highly trained specialists with both clinical and technical expertise. They are a highly valuable resource and not merely replaceable technicians, and are critical to the safety of radiation treatment for our patients,” it said.

The letter is addressed to a pair of doctors, one who appears to be an Alberta Health Services director of community oncology and another who appears to be the facility medical director of the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.

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Medical physicists are specialized scientific professionals who use their knowledge of the interaction between radiation and the human body, often involving X-rays, ultrasound, radioisotopes, magnetic and electric fields in diagnosis and therapy, an AHS careers page says. Their work is divided into two main areas: radiation therapy and diagnostic imaging.

The doctors said medical physicists have facilitated their adoption of modern radiation treatments, improving patient care, resulting in a culture change to embrace newer techniques.

“In losing several key physics personnel over a short time, we have lost critical institutional experience that cannot be easily replaced,” the letter said, while predicting a decline in standard of care.

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The letter also noted the Tom Baker Cancer Centre has been the provincial stem cell transplant site, and receives referrals from neighbouring Saskatchewan and the British Columbia interior.

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The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada recently approved the Tom Baker as the second centre in Canada offering a specialized certificate of training in brachytherapy, “which will now be in jeopardy.”

And the slated 2023 opening of the $1.4-billion Calgary Cancer Centre is under threat, with the letter saying the vision for a world-class oncology centre “will not come to fruition because of insufficient medical physics personnel.”

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An AHS spokesperson confirmed the letter and said quality and safe patient care for Cancer Care Alberta and the Tom Baker is a priority, adding patient care is not being affected at this time, nor do they anticipate additional issues with the move to the new cancer centre.

“We are experiencing some staffing and recruitment challenges at the TBCC in the specialized medical physicist role, as with many other specialized roles that are in high demand across North America,” Kerry Williamson said in an email to Global News.

“An interim director is in place, and AHS is aggressively recruiting to fill all vacancies.”

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Williamson noted AHS is providing medical physicists a one-time salary increase next month.

A joint statement issued by the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, faculty of science and faculty of graduate studies said they were aware of the staffing and recruitment challenges at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.

“The university is working with Alberta Health Services and learners (residents, graduate students and postgrad trainees) in the radiation medicine program to maintain continuity in medical education,” the statement read.

Read more: Province says Calgary Cancer Centre on track for opening in late 2023

Opposition health critic David Shepherd linked this to “continued attacks on Alberta’s health care” saying it’s creating more chaos for staff and patients.

“The opening of the Calgary Cancer Centre is planned for 2023 but the vacancy of these critical positions risks that the centre will not be staffed with the expertise needed,” he said in a statement.

“The UCP have gone to war with doctors, nurses, and now they are creating conflict and uncertainty with every health profession, driving them away, and making it harder for Albertans to access the critical care they need.”

–with files from Lauren Pullen, Global News

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