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Health Workforce Strategy to help mitigate rural and remote care delivery

Posted on March 9, 2023 by Taber Times

By Trevor Busch

Taber Times

Alberta has launched a new Health Workforce Strategy designed to ramp up recruitment and retention of vital health care workers.

Health care needs are constantly evolving, and the Health Workforce Strategy is a plan to identify those areas in advance and provide a healthy work environment for staff.

“When they took a look at the problems they face, which are substantial, being able to fill even the gaps with doctors – not doctors and nurses, not technicians – they recognized that we have got to do better,” said Taber-Warner MLA Grant Hunter. “Universities have to be able to step up. We need to make sure that we have enough people being trained here so they stay here. And this strategy is really what it’s about.” 

To fund the initiative, Budget 2023 included $158 billion, such as $29 million to fulfil the government’s commitment in the agreement signed with the Alberta Medical Association that specifically focuses on underserviced rural and remote communities, $7 million for targeted recruitment of internationally-trained nurses from the United States and the United Kingdom, $1 million to fund the provincial Nurse Navigator program which supports all nurses immigrating to Alberta, and $90 million to strengthen programs to attract and retain rural physicians.

According to government, the strategy is intended to lay the foundation for a resilient and sustainable health care system that provides every Albertan with access and has the workforce in place to deliver the health services Albertans need.

The workforce strategy is built around five pillars, including retention and support, attracting labour, growing education capacity, strengthening workforce planning, and evolving new models of care.

“It’s really about five pillars, retaining support. So we have to make sure that we’re doing better, and everybody in the world is struggling to recruit and retain workers. So we have to provide a safe, engaging and meaningful work environment. That’s going to help.” 

As the strategy is implemented, a framework and specific metrics across each of the pillars will be developed to measure progress and monitor the impact on building a more resilient workforce.

“The other part is to attract – we need to make sure that people all over the world look at Alberta and say, ‘Hey, that’s a great place to go’,” said Hunter. “And so we’ve made sure that we have the environment. Alberta has the advantage that we’ve got the taxes, we’ve got relatively low pricing in terms of housing, it’s got a beautiful landscape in terms of being close to be the mountains, that is one of the freest, fastest moving economies in the world. So I hope that people would say this is a place where they can come to, we have to try to grow this properly.” 

The Health Workforce Strategy will also include new emergency medical services models to improve service capacity and reduce response times, and new educational investments for physicians, nurses, health care aides and allied health professionals.

“So now we have to be able to address that workforce issue. We need to strengthen the system, it needs to be more evidence informed,” continued Hunter. “And a long term planning strategy needs to be there. So you want to make it resilient, it really exposed us to how difficult our system is, and how tenuous our system is. And so that resilience, and strengthening of that resilience, it’s going to be absolutely critical.”

The strategy builds on work that is already underway and will be a foundation for longer-term action plans to be developed in consultation with workers, employers, educators and others. 

“And then we need to evolve. That’s the final part of this whole thing is evolving with new methods, new implementations of policy and models,” said Hunter. “And the care that we provide has to be done, we need to look at other jurisdictions, what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong, and make sure we don’t make those mistakes and make sure that we implement those best practices.”

Actions in the strategy include new approaches to rural and remote care delivery and surgical staffing, additional support for intensive care unit and emergency department staffing, and expanded support for physician and acute care services.

Providing the example of Milk River, which has seen multiple weekend shutdowns for emergency care on and off for months due to a lack of physicians, Hunter argued solutions must be found.

“Milk River right now, it struggles to keep doctors and it’s kind of a revolving door and so I’ve actually got people who are coming in and they’re not staying the full three-year contract,” said Hunter. “So one of the ways that we’re trying to fix that is we’re taking a look at alternative models. So an ARP (Alternative Relationship Plan) is practised in Taber. And so we’re looking at maybe possibly looking at an ARP for the Milk River area. So that’s better than a doctor doing a fee for service, the doctor can go in there and say, ‘Okay, well, even if there’s not the volume of people coming in, I still know that I can make a living here and it’s a fine living’. And so we need to start looking at those types of out-of-the-box thinking so that we can have good quality healthcare in rural Alberta.” 

Hunter believes many rural health care facilities in Alberta could be doing more to ease access problems in other areas of the province. 

“As we have more doctors in Lethbridge, it allows us to be able to have those outcomes for rural Alberta when we need them. And so it’s again that resiliency of the system, being able to deal with it before the need, and I think that’s where I’m seeing some good work. The other thing is, obviously, we don’t want people waiting too long for a hip replacement or a knee replacement or shoulder surgeries, or whatever the surgery is. And so we want to start trying to look at these rural, doctor-rural facilities to see whether or not they’ve got ER capacity. Do they have the ability to have doctors come in? I know we did that in the past, we’ve done pilots about in the past, I think that they’ve worked quite well. So why are we not looking at that? Often times, we hear whether or not there’s ER capacity in the city. Why don’t we start looking at some of these other areas where we can have these surgeries done?”

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