For the second time in less than a week, Alberta Health Services has been forced by chronic staff shortages to cancel all elective orthopedic surgeries at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) confirmed four operating rooms at the hospital’s Orthopedic Surgery Centre will be closed from Aug. 24 to 27 and from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3 due to an ongoing shortage of hospitalists — doctors who provide after-surgery care to patients.
The cancellations affect 83 patients. That is in addition to the cancellation of 53 surgeries a week ago, also due to a shortage of hospitalists.
Thousands of people in Alberta are on elective orthopedic surgery waiting lists. The cancellations are taking a toll on some.
Hedy Peterson, 65, has been waiting nearly four years for knee replacement surgery. In the interim, her left hip deteriorated and she now needs hip-replacement surgery.
Surgeons were to decide this week whether to first replace her knee or her hip during surgery originally scheduled for this Friday. But while grocery shopping on Aug. 19, Peterson received a call from AHS cancelling her surgery.
“She came home in tears,” her daughter Sara Peterson said in an interview. “She was really devastated.”
Sara said her mother can’t walk without a walker, can’t climb stairs and can’t sleep due to the pain from her hip.
“Her quality of life is very, very low,” Sara said, adding that health authorities can’t provide any information about when her mother’s surgery may be rescheduled.
“They know about as much as we do.”
In an emailed statement to CBC News, AHS said the Orthopedic Surgery Centre had “already performed more orthopedic surgeries over the past five months than during the same period over the previous three years.”
The statement also said nurses from the surgery centre have been shifted to regular operating room duty within the hospital to increase access to other surgeries for other maladies such as cancer.
Cancellations cause domino effect
Sources say the Royal Alex is no longer taking any orthopedic surgery referrals, which has caused a domino effect throughout the system as other already overstretched hospitals must absorb an increased patient load from the Edmonton area and from northern Alberta.
Even before the Royal Alex cancellations, sources say the University of Alberta Hospital had up to a two-day wait for emergency, or trauma, orthopedic surgery.
That means, for example, a person with a broken leg from a vehicle accident could receive pain medication and sometimes even remain at home while awaiting surgery.
On Friday, CBC News reported AHS had invoked an emergency clause in its contract with nurses that allows AHS to force nurses to work mandatory overtime, cancel their holidays and shift them to other hospitals.
AHS said three Edmonton-area hospitals used the emergency provisions, including mandatory overtime, last weekend to ensure proper staffing levels. But it said no vacations were cancelled unless nurses agreed.
“The reality is that things are just getting out of control and there seems to be no one in charge,” said David Harrigan, director of labour relations with the United Nurses of Alberta.
“The minister of health has gone into hiding,” Harrigan said. “The premier has gone into hiding. AHS continues to publicly say everything is fine and it just seems to be getting worse every day.”
AHS and the UNA are currently in contract negotiations in which AHS is seeking to roll back nurses’ wages.
Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro have been on holiday until recently and have not commented on the rising tide of COVID-19 infections and the stress on the province’s health-care system.
Health-care workers warn of exhaustion, burnout
Nurses, doctors, EMS staff and other frontline workers have warned about exhaustion and burnout due to the increased strain on the health-care system caused by what they say was the ill-advised early lifting in July of pandemic restrictions.
Last week, physicians representing 450 emergency room doctors wrote a letter to AHS expressing “confusion and alarm” over what they viewed as the downplaying by AHS of bed closures and staffing shortages. They called for immediate action to address overwhelmed and understaffed emergency rooms.
During the Calgary Stampede in July, Kenney, with Shandro’s support, announced the pandemic was over while lifting nearly all pandemic restrictions, including mandatory isolation for infected people.
Critics, including epidemiologists, warned the government that removing pandemic restrictions would lead to a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections.
The Opposition NDP accuse Shandro and Kenney of failing to provide leadership and to be accountable as COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations continue to climb to levels not seen since the spring.
NDP health critic David Shepherd said the most recent surgery cancellations show the public statements from the Kenney government downplaying the severity of the situation “have been utterly false.
“They continue to tell the people of Alberta that things are absolutely fine,” Shepherd said.
“That is, in fact, not the case,” he said. “And here we have more hard evidence from a massive cancellation of important surgeries at the Royal Alex hospital.”
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