Health Care

AHS administrator reports shorter health-care wait times after 90 days in role

Alberta Health Services has reduced wait times for surgeries and EMS services, according to official administrator Dr. John Cowell’s 90-day progress report released Monday.

The report, the first released by Cowell since the launch of the Health Care Action Plan on Nov. 17, highlights actions that have been taken and others that are in progress.

Premier Danielle Smith said the report showed her that the system is not on the brink of collapse like she was told when she took office in October.

“The system is not in crisis. It’s not going to collapse,” Smith said. “We’re seeing the numbers go down and we’re seeing that the language and how people are talking about the system has changed. People now have confidence.”

NDP MLA Lori Sigurdson said staffing shortages have forced 32 hospitals to partially close and send mothers in rural Alberta to other communities to give birth. She added that the emergency room waits are down because seasonal spikes of respiratory illnesses have abated.

Sigurdson challenged Smith’s assertion that AHS was not in crisis.

“This is simply a lie,” she said.

Cowell’s 90-day update focused on the four areas he was tasked with reforming: improving EMS response, cutting waits for surgery, decreasing waits in the emergency room and improving patient flow through the system.

The number of patients waiting more than the clinically recommended times has dropped by 9.4 per cent since November. The provincial wait time to see a doctor in an emergency room is down ten per cent over that same time period.

Emergency rooms of Alberta’s 16 largest hospitals will see the equivalent of 114 full-time nursing positions added starting next month. The staffing will be a mix of full and part-time staff but the numbers are still to be determined.

The report says there has been a small improvement in average wait times for ambulances in 90 per cent of cases: a drop from 21.8 to 17 minutes per call in larger urban areas; 21.5 to 19.2 minutes in communities over 3,000; and 36 to 34.9 minutes in rural communities.

Health Link nurses handled 1,600 calls in the first three weeks of an initiative to transfer non-urgent calls from 911 to 811.

Union questions numbers

The report says 70 casual paramedics will become permanent full-time staff with positions allocated across the five health zones.

Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, the union that represents paramedics, said he was happy to see the government is hiring more of its members but that more needs to be done to fill vacancies in Alberta.

He said 17 minutes was still a long time to wait for an ambulance and asked how Cowell arrived at those numbers.

“Are the response times still ‘call to door’ or is it now ‘dispatch to door’ as they signaled in past announcements?” Parker asked in a news release. “Is that how they got down to a 17-minute response time in the city?”

Cowell is planning to release a one-year and three-year plan for AHS in the coming weeks. Both he and Smith suggested that the wholesale clean-out of AHS management previously promised by Smith may not need to happen at all.

“We’ll know in due course whether or what those changes are going to look like over the next few months,” Cowell said. “Maybe there will be very few or maybe there won’t be.”

Shortly after taking office last fall, Smith was fired on the board of AHS, a promise she made during the UCP leadership campaign, and appointed Cowell to lead the health authority.

Health Minister Jason Copping said Monday that he is looking at reinstating the board. AHS has been led by an interim CEO since former premier Jason Kenney removed Dr. Verna Yiu in April 2022.

Copping said he is awaiting recommendations from Cowell and his committee about his successor.