By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News
The September 13 “community engagement session” with AHS in Picture Butte to discuss the decision to close the Ambulatory Care Clinic (ACC) in Picture Butte saw over 170 people in attendance.
Town officials, residents, and local EMS staff say they were shocked on Aug. 10 to learn of AHS’s decision that the ACC at Piyami Health Centre was slated for closure Oct. 15. Following the announcement, AHS issued a media release informing residents of an upcoming public engagement session scheduled for Sept. 13, nearly one month after AHS announced the news of the closure.
In attendance was Dr. Aaron Low, Zone Medical Director at AHS, Thomas Mountain, Senior Operating Officer (rural west) at AHS, and Suzanne Maynard, Director of EMS Operations for the South Zone.
Dr. Low began the meeting by explaining, “sometimes people get confused between what is emergency care, urgent care and ambulatory care and what could be (dealt with) by a family physician.”
Dr. Low said that in most cases, AHS as an organization “operates urgent care and various care clinics and hires their own staff,” and said this was not the case in Picture Butte.
Previously, a contract was given to (family physician) Dr. Mohammad, independent of (AHS) to operate the clinic. However, this contract has been expired since 2019. Low said, “what we are deciding now (is) that we won’t be renewing that contract,” for the operation of the ACC at Piyami Health Centre.
Despite the signage in town which indicates the facility is “urgent care”, Dr. Low said, “it’s important to note that you have not… had urgent care by AHS’s definition, and the sign does not actively reflect what is delivered at that centre.”
Low said AHS has plans in the works to implement an after-hours clinic in Picture Butte, but that it won’t be up and running until 2024. In order to maintain the service, a rotating roster of physicians, including recent recruits based in Lethbridge, will be put into place.
Low said the hope is that the after hours clinic is able to divert patients from Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge, but said this would, “take some time” for the new after hours clinic to come online and to establish a rotation of doctors to staff it.
“We also think that this will help incentivize people to come to Picture Butte. So not only will they be able to practice family medicine but they’ll also have an opportunity to work in an after-hours setting, which is good for a physician because it’s work and they get paid for doing that,” and added several of the doctors recently recruited to work in the City of Lethbridge may fit into the after-hours clinic’s rotation. He added physicians in this rotation would also be able to work in town without being charged any overhead, and said because of this AHS foresees it, “being an easy thing to maintain these positions.”
When asked why the closure is to take place before the after hours clinic is up and running, Dr. Low said AHS is implementing an electronic medical record program Connect Care, which will go live in the South Zone on Nov. 4.
“It was not possible to extend Connect Care to have it operated by people who are not (AHS) staff,” he told residents during the Sept. 13 community engagement session.
Low said most of the prospective physician recruits are international medical graduates, which means there is additional criteria which needs to be met before these physicians are “trained appropriately and would give the care we expect them to give in Canada.”
Concerns were also raised by residents in attendance over how the closure may impact emergency services and ambulance service in the community.
In terms of how EMS services will be maintained in and around Picture Butte, Suzanne Maynard, Director of EMS operations in the South Zone said, “EMS has one contract service partner EMS unit here in the community that runs 24/7. We do have the ability to provide an additional ad hoc EMS unit if needed.”
“I think it’s important to note that over the last six months we worked really hard with our partners on the hospital side to have rural units return back to rural communities,” Maynard said.
Audience member, Jesse Tanabe spoke during the Q&A portion of the meeting and said, “I’ve been a clinical assistant at Picture Butte urgent care for 11 years. I kind of feel like the designation that you gave us, you are trying to kind of mis-characterize us to some extent, (defining) urgent care versus ambulatory care clinic, and I kind of feel like that does diminish, to some extent, what we are capable of doing in particular during the daytime.”
“We are actively working to recruit physicians to the community (…) That’s the objective. That’s the fix for the problem,” said Low.
He added, “the issue here is access to primary care. That is what we’re talking about: being able to access a family physician who can give you the care that you need, and that’s the issue. It actually is not AHS’s responsibility, we run hospital services. The government is in charge of primary care and they have been very clear about that. “
AHS did not provide a firm timeline for the opening of the after-hours clinic in Picture Butte, but said ideally sometime in early 2024.