Dear Editor: Every day, our health care teams carefully manage hospital beds to ensure Albertans get the care they need.
Aligning health care resources such as beds with patient demand has always been a key tenet of how we manage Alberta’s provincial health care system.
Let us be clear — there is no bed shortage in Alberta. Our system is stable, safe and available for any patient who needs it.
If a patient needs a bed — whether it be in an emergency department or on a hospital ward — a space will always be available.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) is currently dealing with some temporary, short-term bed reductions at some of our hospitals.
This was not unexpected, as we emerge from an unprecedented pandemic that tested our health care system’s capacity and pushed our front-line teams to their limits. We will be dealing with the impacts of the pandemic for some time.
This is a challenge being experienced across the country. Our staff and physicians have worked extremely hard and deserve a break, meaning they are less available to work extra shifts than they would have been a year ago.
Many are travelling to see loved ones they have been unable to see in 20-odd months.
This means temporary bed reductions are necessary at sites where staffing challenges are significant.
It’s important to point out the vast majority of our beds remain open and available for patient care. AHS has about 8,500 acute care beds across the province — 98.3 per cent of those beds are open and available for patients.
In addition, AHS has about 1,200 emergency department care spaces across the province. Of those, 98.9 per cent are open and available.
A key point is there are times a bed may be closed — but there isn’t a patient in need of that bed.
During the summer months, when demand is lower, AHS has reduced beds in order to accommodate vacations and absences. This occurs every summer to varying degree. For example, recently AHS closed three emergency department care spaces at the Sturgeon Community Hospital in St. Albert, due to some unexpected staff absences.
However, the hospital currently has 40 emergency department care spaces available, and the temporary closure of those three beds had absolutely no impact on patients. Similarly, six emergency department spaces have been temporarily closed at the Royal Alexandra Hospital. But, 50 care spaces remain open, and patient occupancy is less than 80 per cent with fewer than 40 patients currently needing an emergency department bed.
This is important context to keep in mind when you hear about claims of a bed shortage. In other instances, AHS has been able to alleviate the need for bed reductions or service reductions, by recruiting locums or re-deploying staff and/or physicians to a site experiencing staffing challenges. Again, this is common practice over the summer months. For example, a last minute locum placement in Rocky Mountain House recently meant we were able to keep the site’s emergency department open. We are always working towards these solutions.
Temporary bed closures are not unusual for AHS or any other health system, especially in the summer when staffing levels are historically lower, as our health care workers take more personal time. Emergency department bed reductions are infrequent — but do happen from time to time.
As of July 22, there are just two AHS sites where patients are being diverted from EDs, on certain days and at certain times — Elk Point and Fort Vermilion. This is not something AHS wants to happen, but these situations happen every year, especially in the summer. It’s not a result of a policy or resource change.
As AHS deals with these situations, it’s important to know vacancy-filling and recruitment is always a priority for AHS and takes place all year, in real time. Over the last year, AHS has filled more than 1,000 vacancies for registered nurses. Additionally, there are approximately 1,700 more RNs working in AHS today than there were in 2019.
AHS is pursuing recruitment strategies that aim to fill existing vacancies by the end of August or September, and earlier where possible. As the pandemic winds down, we are also moving staff who were working on the pandemic response into their original positions, this will help fill vacancies.
This all helps to ensure the health care system is safe — and there for those who need it.
AHS president and CEO