Opinion: Reforming Alberta’s health care requires listening to patients, providers

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Arguably the most important skill doctors need to have is the ability to listen. Whether it’s listening to a patient’s needs so we can provide them the best possible care, or listening to the expertise of other physicians and allied health professionals when figuring out a diagnosis, our ears are just as important as our eyes and hands. 

As a profession that is built on hearing what others have to say, we can tell when someone is not listening. And Danielle Smith’s government is not. 

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When news dropped about the UCP government’s plan to reorganize Alberta Health Services (AHS), it wasn’t just a surprise to patients. It was a surprise to doctors, nurses, and every other health-care professional as well. It was an idea that was built to remedy the various problems faced by Alberta’s health-care system, without consulting the very people who run that system.  

But in my opinion, the restructuring is not the biggest problem, but a symptom of a far greater one: Danielle Smith and the rest of the UCP are choosing not to listen. 

There is unquestionably a physician shortage in Alberta and the rest of Canada. Hundreds of thousands of Albertans are without a family doctor, and the waitlists for many specialties are years long.  

This has led to burnout across the province, with both general practitioners and specialists working much more than they should be. I have heard stories of physicians who go to work sick because they feel bad about rescheduling patients months later, and as people live longer and get more complex health-care needs, physicians are taking on more work for the same amount of pay. 

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Albertan doctors took a pay cut to help the province balance the budget, but when Albertan doctors asked for support in return, all that the UCP government was willing to give is a one-per-cent increase per year – well below the rate of inflation — while it runs a massive surplus.  

Doctors make less than people think. Around 40 per cent of the gross income collected by hospitals and clinics go directly to overhead, and many hours are spent each day meticulously documenting and writing down everything that was said during a clinical encounter with a patient. What health care needs are more health-care providers and more hands to help with all the administrative work health-care professionals are faced with. 

Yet these needs seem to be falling on some deaf ears. The UCP government is ignoring expert opinions, and they removed some of the most important executives in Alberta Health Services. During many of the telephone town halls, questions from health-care professionals were evaded or ignored, and it takes a long time — with a lot of prompting — for health-care groups to get an audience with the government. Although they say they’re listening, their actions don’t really reflect it. 

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Behaviour like this has caused myself and many other people in my medical class to consider options outside Alberta for residency and beyond. If Premier Smith and the rest of the UCP government continue to not consider our needs, we might not consider the province as our future workplace and home. 

Personally, I don’t believe restructuring AHS is the best route forward. I think creating smaller, parallel organizations will only lead to disjointed care, bureaucratic redundancy, and it will cause many patients to fall through new cracks created in the system.  

But there is evidence that suggests decentralization can improve efficiency and access in a health-care system, as long as context is taken into account.  

There’s only one way to understand the context of a health-care system, and that’s by genuinely hearing what patients and providers within the system have to say. If Danielle Smith and the rest of the UCP care about Alberta’s health-care system, they only need to do one simple thing. And that simple thing is listening. Genuinely listening. 

Kerry Yang is a medical student at the University of Calgary.

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