Tuesday, September 15, 2020

So You're Unhappy with Alberta's Public Healthcare System (or What Can I Do to Improve My Experience in the Public Healthcare System?)

Public healthcare is often a contentious issue in Alberta - many people are frustrated with non-emergency surgical and diagnostic imaging wait times. But for some reason, there are people who seem to think that in order to correct that problem, we need a completely different system, rather than improving the one we have.

My 2nd child had a health crisis when she was a baby and the ensuing doctor appointments, procedures, and therapies made me realize how fortunate we are in Canada to have a publicly funded, single-payer, universal healthcare system. In many countries of the world, my daughter would have either died, or we would have been bankrupted by medical bills. This precipitated my advocacy work on public healthcare. I spent a lot of time asking questions, reading, and participating in work to advance and protect public healthcare. I have been a member of Palliser Friends of Medicare for the last 9 years and currently serve as Co-Chair.

It’s easy to assume that if you aren’t a politician, medical personnel, or medical system administrator, that you are powerless in the public healthcare system. This isn’t true! I would like to share with you ways that a layperson can work to improve your own healthcare experience as well as improve it for all other users and providers in our province.


1. Try to find a family doctor in order to have continuity of care. This benefits both you as a patient and your doctor. If you don't have a family doctor, click here to find out how to find one in Alberta. If you are unhappy with your current doctor, look for a new one. Don't wait until you are in the middle of a health crisis to find someone new.

2. Take a trusted friend or family member with you to doctors appointments. When we are faced with complex or emotionally upsetting information, it can be very difficult to take it all in and remember what is being said to us, or even think of the pertinent questions to ask. Having someone by your side to make notes, ask questions, or just provide support is an important part of self-advocacy. A person who is unwell cannot always advocate for themselves, being sick and in pain is all-consuming, so have a plan in place for someone to be your advocate when needed, and be willing to do the same for loved ones in your life.

3. Ask your doctor if they follow the Choosing Wisely Canada recommendations for ordering diagnostic tests.  This program aims to reduce unnecessary tests and treatment in health care while still maintaining excellence and best practice in treatment.

4. If you are concerned about a health issue and you feel that your doctor is being dismissive or you request a test or medication and they say no or brush you off, ask them to document refusal in your chart. This is especially important for all the women out there. Unfortunately our health and pain isn’t always taken seriously - if you have a gut feeling about your own health, or the health of your child, and it isn't being addressed, seek a 2nd opinion. Doctors are a godsend, but they aren't god.

5. If your doctor has decided to send you for diagnostic testing or a procedure, but you have not heard from either your doctor's office or the specialist/clinic you are being referred to within 5 business days, call your doctor's office to confirm the referral. Then, call the office you have been referred to and ask if they have a cancellation wait-list and ask to be put on it.

6. I’ve often found that the place most people encounter problems with in our system is in one-on-one care. A doctor or nurse can make or break your experience, so while the system may function appropriately and efficiently, your individual experience with a single person can change the direction of your care. You are not without recourse. I have assembled a brochure for our region with information for when something goes wrong, but much of the information is pertinent to the entire province.

7. If transportation to care in another centre is an issue, ask your doctor if you can access care through Telehealth. “Telehealth is the delivery of health related services and information at a distance using videoconference technology through one of the largest Telehealth networks in North America. Using a multitude of technology solutions for clinical, education, and administrative services, AHS Telehealth plays a significant role in providing a patient-focused, quality health service that is accessible and sustainable for all Albertans.”

8. Use the AHS mobile App to find medical resources in your community, including Emergency Department and Urgent Care Centre wait times in real time.



Every region faces their own unique community health issues. Perhaps you live in a rural or remote area and need more doctors, or people are having difficulty travelling to specialists appointments. There are many ways to get involved to make changes at a local level.

  1. Join your local Health Advisory Council. “Health Advisory Councils provide a grassroots perspective and an understanding of their communities' health needs. Council members are interested in listening to the people and committed to giving valuable feedback to AHS. Twelve councils across Alberta represent many different experiences, cultures and ages, and provide critical feedback that informs decisions that affect how AHS delivers health services and cares for Albertans.”

  1. Join your local Physician Attraction and Retention Committee. Many municipalities have committees that work to attract physicians to their regions using a variety of methods. I previously lived in a rural community that gave new physicians a free, furnished house when they signed a contract for services. They also created an informative video showcasing the town, it’s amenities and medical facilities, which was distributed through a variety of channels to encourage doctors to consider setting up practices there.

  1. Join your local Patient & Family Advisory Group “The Alberta Health Services (AHS) Patient and Family Advisory Group was formed in late 2010 and is currently made up of 30 volunteer members from across the province with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. The advisors meet monthly, with a summer break, to provide input on various AHS strategic goals and initiatives. This is achieved through a partnership with patients and families to improve quality, safety, and the patient experience leading to a transformation of the health care system in Alberta.”

  1. If you have a loved one in a licensed Care Facility, you can join or start a Resident and Family Council. “The Resident and Family Councils Act came into effect on April 1, 2018. The legislation gives residents and their families the right to establish self-governing councils at any long-term care and licensed supportive living facility that serves 4 or more people. The legislation requires facility operators to make residents and their family aware of their right to establish a council. They must also respond to resident and family requests and concerns, provide information about resident and family councils and support the functioning of an active resident and family council. Councils provide an opportunity for residents and families to discuss matters with agency or operator staff including:

  • maintaining and enhancing residents' quality of life

  • requests, concerns and solutions

Once a council has been established, operators or their representatives must provide support to the councils and attend meetings upon request.

  1. Join your local Friends of Medicare Chapter Friends of Medicare is a non-partisan provincial coalition of individuals, service organizations, social justice groups, unions, churches and other organizations whose goal is to raise public awareness on concerns related to Medicare in Alberta and Canada.

  1. Consider creating a community group to meet the specific needs of your community.  In Bassano, people were struggling with attending specialist appointments in the city because of lack of transportation - so they created a volunteer group that drives people to appointments. It is within your ability and power to do the same for the needs of your community!

The Heavy Hitters

This is the part that is boring to most people, as it can seem that it doesn’t effect them personally. But the decisions made at this level impact many facets of our lives when accessing medical care. It is valuable to understanding how our system works and who is responsible for what. It includes groups and legislation:

You can always contact your MLA’s office with your concerns regarding the funding and management of the healthcare system. Here is a list of Alberta MLA’s if you are unsure as to what constituency you live in.  Remember, even if you didn’t vote for them, they still represent you and are obligated to hear and respond to your concerns.

Now about those surgical wait times - check out this document for some ideas you could consider and advocate for with some of the above committees and advisory boards.

Good health to you and yours!

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