AMA president says doctors' input key on Alberta Health Services restructuring

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The head of the Alberta Medical Association says the provincial government needs to consult closely with doctors on any of its moves to restructure the provincial health authority.

President Dr. Paul Parks said in an interview with Postmedia Monday the health-care system is struggling under the strain of a depleted workforce as demand by patients with respiratory illness increases, and it’s critical doctors have input on whatever government policy is coming.

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“We’re the ones that will know how it’s going to impact frontline care,” said Parks, who works as an emergency physician in Medicine Hat.

“I think it’s going to be a tough, tough fall and winter, based on our capacity and our workforce, and so there’ll be lots to talk about and hopefully we can make improvements,” he said, adding stabilizing primary care and access to hospital care are top priorities for the AMA.

While it’s unclear what exactly the province will do to change Alberta Health Services (AHS), Premier Danielle Smith has said the first steps in a promised decentralization of the provincial health authority will come this fall. Health Minister Adriana LaGrange has been tasked with increasing the capacity for local decision-making, arguing AHS should be more focused on direct hospital care.

Parks said most of those in the profession would argue against giving up on a centralized authority — especially given its advantages, including in procurement — but he said there are ways to improve local decision-making.

“The outcome has to be that it’s better for patients in the system, in the sense of protecting continuity of care, transition of care and seamless movement through the system,” he said.

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Last week, AHS announced that it would leave decisions on masking requirements to individual regions and hospitals. The Royal Alexandra Hospital became the first in the province to enact masking rules for public-facing staff under the directive, with AHS saying it was a “site-level” decision.

“If it’s driven by the data and the evidence in the system and the workers’ and the patients’ best interest, then we can support local decision-making,” said Parks.

The new president was in Edmonton Monday to kick off a province-wide tour engaging with AMA members at town halls in seven locations.

“Morale is pretty low, the system is struggling, and I think the idea behind this is to get out there face-to-face, start to reconnect with the frontline local doctors and really figure out what are their key issues, and then also really engage with government, AHS and other key stakeholders,” he said.

‘We’ve lost the Alberta advantage … and we’ve got to restore that’

While Alberta is not alone in struggling to recruit doctors and health-care workers, Parks said it’s a priority for the AMA to shore up its relationship with government to help make Alberta a more attractive place to work.

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“We’ve lost the Alberta advantage on the health care front, and we’ve got to restore that,” said Parks, adding that after having met regularly with LaGrange, he’s optimistic the tide is turning.

Late last year, doctors reached a new four-year funding agreement with the province and, during May’s general election, the UCP promised signing bonuses for in-demand professions, including in health care.

The province has kicked off several health-care worker retention and recruitment initiatives, including streamlining credentialing, but Parks said serious work still needs to be done.

The AMA has put forward a proposal to help stabilize family medicine practices in the province, a big priority for the association.

“It’s going to be really important to show existing doctors real results, and that’ll signal to the rest of the country — new grads, new physicians in training and any doctors looking to come,” said Parks.

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