By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News
Alberta Health Services (AHS) has announced the date for an upcoming “public engagement session,” regarding the closure of the Piyami Health Centre’s ambulatory care clinic (ACC) in Picture Butte.
AHS made the announcement of the closure on Aug. 10, citing October 15, 2023 as the official closure date.
A letter signed by South Zone Medical Director, Dr. Aaron Low and Associate Zone Medical Director, Dr. Sandra Stover, claims, “Careful consideration was taken prior to the decision to end the contract for the ACC (ambulatory care clinic), and redirect funding towards supporting the recruitment and retention of family doctors in Picture Butte.”
According to the Director and Associate South Zone directors at AHS, “usage of the ACC has continued to drop year over year serving an average of three to four patients during the 16 hours the clinic is open daily,” and said often these, “non-urgent patients could be served at a physician’s private office in the community as they were mostly seeking care for health needs such as minor cuts, burns, sprains, headaches and sore throats.”
AHS communications have stressed, “The ambulatory clinic is only a portion of the overall facility, which also includes seniors housing, supportive living, home care, allied health and public health.”
The upcoming public engagement session will be held on Sept. 13 in Picture Butte at the community centre from 7-8 p.m., and will be an opportunity for residents, “to learn more about primary healthcare services in Picture Butte, as well as the upcoming closure of the ambulatory care clinic at the Piyami Health Centre.”
The in-person session will allow residents the opportunity to, “speak with AHS representatives,” directly to provide further clarity on how the funds will support physician recruitment as well as the healthcare services which will continue after the ACC closure.
During the Aug. 28 Picture Butte town council meeting, Coun. Papworth said “we are waiting to hear from AHS to see where they are going to go in the future as far as doctor recruitment,” and how the funds from the closure of the ACC will further doctor recruitment efforts in the town.
Moore said the goal is to bring in two new primary care physicians. “(AHS) knows that our doctors are retiring, and when they retire, if they can’t keep the money in Picture Butte, Picture Butte will go without doctors.They’ve made that clear.”
Picture Butte council formed a doctor recruitment committee last year, but ultimately, AHS has final say on where doctors are placed. In approaching AHS on the possibility of the town getting new doctors, and keeping the ACC open, Moore said, “they said, that’s not going to happen. We’re not going to have an urgent care. They’ve made that perfectly clear,” adding the money which was previously being spent on the ACC will, upon its closure, be “kept in the town,” to recruit physicians.
Moore said the Town was told by AHS, “if we find a way to keep it open, when our two doctors do retire, that’s it. We will not have any doctors in this town,” and said the funds for recruitment would be off the table.
Alberta’s Budget 2023 has already allocated $158 million over 2023-2024 towards workforce planning to increase the number of health care professionals, and $250 million over the next four years to support recruitment and retention programs and help support physicians. The town does not appear to be included in the Province’s rural physician recruitment funding, because of the proximity to Lethbridge.
Coun. Papworth said a recent meeting between Mayor Moore, herself and two local physicians revealed, “various opinions from both doctors came out about the urgent care. They both want to see it there, of course, but different ways that they’ve handled it, maybe could have been done a little bit different, too (…) let’s just say some of the numbers were skewed at urgent care because they turned into office visits. So in that respect, they’re trying to let the people that made these decisions to close our urgent care aware,” of this.
When asked, AHS did not provide clarification whether the organization was aware of this potential skewing in usage numbers, nor whether the organization would re-examine the decision to close the ACC if it is determined usage figures were under-represented.
In an emailed statement, AHS said, “ACC usage numbers, along with many other important factors, contributed to the decision to not renew AHS’ contract with Dr Mohamed to operate the ACC. The upcoming in-person community engagement session will provide the opportunity to explain this decision, and community members will have opportunity to provide their perspectives.”
Dr. Low and Dr. Stover’s letter said, “In conversations with the Town of Picture Butte, we explained the needs of the community, reviewed the number of patients utilizing the ACC, and looked at potential options of how to best direct funding to support primary healthcare needs. When we shared the number of patients presenting to the ACC, as well as the level of care required, the Town understood the choice to utilize the contract funds to support maintaining strong primary care in the community.”
Moore said despite what the initial press release from AHS’s South Zone and deputy zone directors may imply, there was no consultation with the Town prior to the announcement.
Moore added the language of the letter is, “terribly misleading,” adding, “it makes it look like we were all in agreement with this and we weren’t.”
“We knew nothing of it. So there is no advance warning; there was no discussion. There was nothing. They just said ‘this is what we’re doing’.”
In the weeks following the Aug. 10 announcement of the closure of the ACC, some community members have taken to social media calling for pushback at the community level, encouraging residents to voice their opinions on the matter at the upcoming public engagement session. Various posts on the matter in local community groups have amassed hundreds of comments and shares.
Some residents have voiced concern what impact the loss of ambulatory care clinic services will have in an area known for farming and agriculture.
Executive Director of AgSafe Alberta, Jody Wacowich said, “While it is disappointing to hear of the clinic being closed and the challenges that it creates, the things that we as a health and safety association have to look at for farms and ranches are the distance to closest emergency department, the number of trained first aiders on site and First Aid kit requirements as per legislation.”
Following the Whoop-Up Days Parade on Aug. 22, Premier Danielle Smith told reporters in Lethbridge Alberta Health Services, “has not been responsive to local needs, they’ve not been able to address the issues of closures, and we find it unacceptable as the entity that’s paying the bills […] We’re charged with the task of making sure that people get the healthcare they want and need when they need it.”
Moore said with respect to the upcoming public engagement session, “[AHS] asked Keith (Davis, Town CAO) and myself to sit up at the front with them and we’ve declined. Just so you know we’ll be in the crowd with everybody else asking the same questions as they will be.”
The Picture Butte Community Centre is located at 607 Hwy Avenue N. The session will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 13, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.