A shortage of obstetricians in Lethbridge is being called a crisis, and it’s sparking concerns about patient safety.
By the end of November, just one permanent obstetrician-gynecologist will be left to serve the southern Alberta city of more than 100,000 people and its surrounding areas.
There’s funding for eight obstetrician-gynecologists. But since June there has been a sharp decline in the number practicing.
Several specialists are on leave, with another going on maternity leave within weeks. Others have closed their practices altogether.
“This is a safety issue. This is a crisis,” said Dr. Sarah Wozney, an obstetrician-gynecologist who recently moved away from Lethbridge to pursue further education.
She worries some women could go without prenatal care.
“If you don’t have the people there to pick up on their early signs when something’s not going right, then a situation can result in devastating consequences for mom and baby including losing a pregnancy, or even worse,” she said.
During her last few weeks in Lethbridge this spring, as the number of specialists dwindled, Wozney saw more women travelling to Calgary for care.
“You’re basically forcing people to have to go elsewhere to seek the care they need which, unfortunately, not everyone is in a position to be able to do,” she said.
“Women … as citizens, we have a right to basic health care, and how can you provide that for patients when you don’t have enough people to do that?”
It’s not just expectant moms who are struggling.
Kelsie Schlese has dealt with pregnancy loss, fertility issues and other gynecological problems for years. She recently lost her obstetrician.
“When I found out that she was leaving, I bawled my eyes out because it took me 10 years to find a good OB who would help me,” she said.
“And it’s very stressful because there’s no guarantee that I’ll ever get in with an OB.”
Schlese, who is paying for help through a private fertility clinic in B.C., said she’s facing a three year wait to see a Lethbridge specialist.
Charity Manzara is struggling to find an obstetrician in the city, too, after suffering severe tearing and nerve damage during childbirth last year.
“Finding one in such a scarce area [is] just nearly impossible. And it’s so emotionally draining,” said Manzara.
“It’s hard to feel like you actually matter.… The lack of help that we receive is just so, so heartbreaking.”
It’s not just the ability to start a family that is affected. Wozney said serious gynecological problems could go undetected or untreated if women don’t have access to specialists.
She said that includes conditions leading to heavy blood loss and requiring blood transfusion, and the detection of ovarian, cervical and endometrial cancer.
“These are all issues that are dealt with by gynecologists and they’re big problems.”
Meanwhile, Vicki Todd, a Lethbridge-based birth doula, said she’s hearing from worried women.
“What you can guarantee will happen is that appointments will be shorter and more abrupt, [and there will be] longer wait times,” said Todd.
“We shouldn’t be concerned about having to send our patients anywhere. We should be able to support them locally here.”
Recruitment efforts underway
Alberta Health Services (AHS) declined CBC’s request for an interview. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson said the health authority is working to address the shortage.
“Expectant and new mothers will continue to receive the care they need in Lethbridge,” spokesperson Kerry Williamson said.
“AHS is working closely with physicians to ensure expectant mothers are still able to deliver in the community.”
According to Williamson, AHS has more than 20 physicians from Calgary and across the province who have agreed to fill on-call shifts at the Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge.
He said there are recruitment challenges across the province, and areas outside of Calgary and Edmonton are particularly hard hit.
AHS opened a prenatal clinic at Chinook Regional Hospital this month and it’s working to recruit more permanent doctors, including internationally trained physicians.
But Calgary-based obstetrician Dr. Stephanie Cooper believes more long-term solutions are needed.
“They’re finding doctors from other places to come in and give temporary support.…They’re looking at sending patients out to other centres [that] can provide the services that they need. But this is not sustainable and it’s not on the level of care that patients deserve,” she said.
“It’s really unfortunate that … we have taken such a big step backwards.”
In Alberta and Canada … women’s health-care is still not a priority.– Dr. Sarah Wozney
Dr. Sharon Rowan and her colleagues are scrambling to fill the void.
“It is a tsunami that is crashing down on our practice, of patients who require ongoing prenatal care and don’t have access to an alternate provider,” said Rowan, who runs Maternity Associates, a clinic with family physicians specialising in low-risk obstetrics.
Referrals from doctors and calls from women looking for care are up dramatically in the last two weeks, she said.
As a result, the clinic’s three physicians have decided to nearly triple the number of deliveries they perform, from approximately 20 to 60 every month.
For her part, Wozney believes the situation in Lethbridge highlights a much wider problem with access to medical care for women.
“We’re talking about health issues that affect 50 per cent of the population,” said Wozney. “Systemically in Alberta and Canada … women’s health care is still not a priority.”