In his first news conference as Alberta Municipalities president, Tyler Gandam pointed to Ponoka’s chronic emergency department closures as evidence of the health-care challenges facing municipalities.
“The last thing a person should be worried about is whether the emergency will be open or an ambulance available to answer a call,” said Gandam, who is mayor of Wetaskiwin, one of 300 municipalities represented by Alberta Municipalities (AbMunis).
For Ponoka Mayor Kevin Ferguson, who has seen the town’s emergency department close temporarily 20 times already this year because a doctor was not available, the shout-out was welcomed.
“I’m very thankful that Tyler did mention us,” he said on Friday.
“One of the things we’ve got to do as rural mayors is get our story out there.”
Ponoka’s worrying health-care issues are not unique and 17 central Alberta mayors meet in person or by Zoom regularly to discuss the problems facing the region and what needs to be done.
Ferguson was among a group of mayors that met with Health Minister Adriana LaGrange in Edmonton last month to stress the risks rural residents face when the closest place to get emergency care is not guaranteed to be open. The problem is exasperated by a shortage of doctors, which means patients often have to turn to emergency departments for care.
The challenges facing communities such as Ponoka are not clearly understood by many health-care decision-makers, he believes.
While Ponoka’s population is about 7,300, there are about 35,000 to 40,000 when surrounding areas are included who turn to the town’s hospital for treatment.
“Now you’re talking about an emergency department that’s serving the size of a small city.”
The numbers reflect that. Ponoka’s emergency department doctors typically see about 70 patients a day or roughly a patient every 20 minutes.
“That’s probably starting to approach Red Deer levels in terms of busy-ness,” he said.
Ferguson is confident that rural mayors are getting their message out and believes the health minister listened and is sympathetic to their concerns.
“My real worry is I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t want to help, who sees the problem and doesn’t argue the facts. They all glom on to the problem.
“What I’m really afraid of us is we may not have the time to fix this before it really gets serious.”
His nightmare scenario is that the emergency department will be closed when disaster strikes.
“If we had a catastrophe or an emergency we’re vulnerable. This is a first-world country in a roundabout kind of way playing Russian roulette with whether an emergency department is going to be open or not, especially in a rural area.
“I think time is of the essence and we really need to get this problem solved.”
There is hope that the situation can be improved. Lengthy waits for ambulances in the Ponoka area have been shortened. “It’s not at the point we were nine months ago when it was touch and go whether you could get an ambulance.”
As well, Ponoka will be getting another doctor this fall, along with Rimbey and Camrose.
Ferguson said central Alberta mayors will continue to push for more action.