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Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

March 22, 2023

UCalgary policy papers promote informed health-care discussion prior to provincial election

Rural care document released this week is 1st in series of papers from O'Brien Institute

Alberta has a crisis in rural access to health care. With a provincial election looming, the Cumming School of Medicine’s (CSM) O'Brien Institute for Public Health hopes a new policy paper outlining the issues, and possible solutions, will stimulate thoughtful dialogue.

“The goal of this document is to make the rural health crisis an issue people can have a well-informed conversation about prior to the election, and hopefully that brings ideas to the table to help everyone be better informed,” says Dr. Aaron Johnston, MD, associate dean of distributed learning and rural initiatives at UCalgary’s CSM.

This is a resource for voters and politicians. It’s based on societal needs because whoever is elected will be dealing with the problems


Tom Stelfox, MD, PhD, scientific director of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health

Tom Stelfox, MD, PhD, scientific director of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health.

Johnston is the principal author of “Priorities to Improve Care in Rural Alberta, the first in a series of policy papers from the O’Brien Institute’s Centre for Health Policy. The series includes policy papers on senior care, primary care, youth mental health, and the future of Alberta Health Services, which will be released in the lead up to two public events in late April and early May.

”Alberta like many jurisdictions around the world is experiencing a crisis of health-system sustainability. This has been years in the making and will take hard work to resolve,” says Dr. Tom Stelfox, MD, PhD, director of the O’Brien Institute. “It is essential that Albertans talk about the key health challenges and opportunities before us and demand thoughtful action.”

Rural shortage impacts all Albertans

Currently, about one-quarter of Albertans — around 650,000 people — live in rural areas. Johnston says the goal is to help all Albertans understand what the ongoing loss of rural physicians, nurses and other health professionals has meant to 22 per cent of the province’s population.

As well as directly affecting patients through available health care, the talent drain is shown to deeply impact Alberta’s rural economies. Uncertainty keeps younger Albertans from maintaining or choosing a rural life, and it also drives older Albertans from the community, instead of allowing seniors to age in place. These challenges add stress to urban health facilities as rural residents flock to cities for treatment.

“Rural health is equally as important as urban health, and everyone in the province can be impacted by the strain on the health-care system,” says Johnston. “We live and play throughout this province. If you hurt yourself on a trail, or the highway, you want to know quality care is close by. And we know people recovering from illness have longer hospitalizations when they are far away from home and family.”

Worrisome situation when health care is not guaranteed

Aaron Johnston (right) speaks to medical students during orientation week about becoming a rural doctor

Aaron Johnston (right) speaks to medical students during orientation week about becoming a rural doctor.

Distributed Learning and Rural Initiatives, Cumming School of Medicine

Johnston says rural Albertans are regularly faced with issues ranging from closed emergency rooms to long drives for obstetrics, or a lack of care while convalescing from a health issue.

“If you live in Oyen, and your emergency shuts down for the weekend, what are you supposed to do?” Johnston asks. “It is scary, and part of that is the unknown. You don’t feel safe when you don’t have emergency medical care close to home.”

Johnston says these are not unsurmountable problems, and that Albertans need to understand that what works in a large city may not work in a smaller centre.  

Success stories and potential solutions

“Priorities to Improve Care in Rural Alberta, like the other policy papers being released by the O'Brien Institute, includes suggestions toward a sustainable system

In the rural case, the document seeks a non-partisan commitment from the winning political party to improve Alberta’s rural health situation in three key areas:

  • A commitment to rural health teams able to provide comprehensive health care including obstetric and surgical services.
  • A commitment to team-based practice models with staffing levels that promote long-term retention of health professionals.
  • A commitment to educating the future health-care workforce in rural Alberta, for rural Alberta.

Authors of Priorities to Improve Care in Rural Alberta” include Dr. Darren Nichols, MD, University of Alberta, Dr. Gavin Parker, MD, Pincher Creek, Dr. Kristy Penner, MD, University of Calgary, Dr. Amity Quinn, PhD, University of Calgary.

Along with the policy papers, The Centre for Health Policy is hosting two town halls:

  • Pincher Creek, Friday, April 28, 7-8 p.m. at Vertical Church
    • Town hall will focus on rural care and primary care
  • Calgary, Tuesday, May 2, 6:30-8 p.m. at the Central Public Library
    • Town hall will include presentations on all papers

Aaron Johnston is associate dean distributed learning and rural Initiatives at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and a clinical associate professor in the departments of Emergency Medicine and Medicine. He is a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health.

Tom Stelfox is scientific director of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and a professor in the departments of Critical Care Medicine, Community Health Sciences, and Medicine.

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