Yellowknife's Stanton Territorial Hospital. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital will no longer offer rheumatology services, forcing hundreds of patients to rely on Edmonton for treatment.
According to internal correspondence at the NWT health authority seen by Cabin Radio, closure of the service in Yellowknife affects almost 400 people. The closure, which was not publicly announced, takes effect on Friday.
Rheumatology is the branch of medicine that deals with inflammation of joints, muscles, bones and internal organs, including many types of arthritis.
The decision appeared to be driven not by financial concerns but by an inability to find anyone to do the job. Cabin Radio understands the health authority has been unable to replace a visiting rheumatologist who previously travelled to Yellowknife regularly to provide the service.
In a Q&A circulated internally for use with affected patients, the health authority stated the change was driven by “the inability to find a consistent provider or group of providers who could support the NWT on an ongoing basis.”
“Having different providers visiting inconsistently reduces the possibility of continuity of care for those who need it,” the Q&A continued, adding that moving care to Alberta will mean “regular providers and a coordinated program.”
It will also mean enforced trips to and from Alberta for many NWT residents, likely including some who – given their need for rheumatology – will have to manage painful conditions while travelling.
While it’s possible that some services can be provided virtually by Edmonton-based rheumatologists, the cost to the territory of sending NWT patients south for treatment will significantly exceed the previous cost of offering the treatment in Yellowknife. (Patients will be able to use the NWT’s medical travel provisions to cover their trips, the health authority stated.)
The NWT has an agreement with Alberta that allows the territory’s residents the same priority as any Albertan in the province’s healthcare system. However, Edmonton rheumatology services are understood to already have a sizeable waitlist, just as the NWT’s service did.
Patients will be told to expect direct contact from Alberta healthcare providers about their treatment, and asked to wait until at least February 1, 2023 to follow up if they do not hear anything.
Yet this time, there was no end date provided. A notification to staff that rheumatology services were ending carried an air of finality, with no indication that a resumption of service at Stanton is expected.
Patients being notified
In a statement to Cabin Radio on Thursday afternoon, the health authority said no other services were at imminent risk of closure but it continued to “review the sustainability of the sub-specialty medical services we deliver.”
David Maguire, a spokesperson for the health authority, said staff were “in the process of notifying patients” regarding the rheumatology decision.
“If they have not heard from us already, impacted individuals can expect to hear directly from the NTHSSA soon,” Maguire wrote.
One NWT medical professional with knowledge of the decision, who requested anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss it, criticized the lack of a public announcement about the move but expressed some sympathy for the health authority’s position.
“It feels like they’re hoping this will go away and people won’t ask the hard questions,” the medical professional said.
“It’s challenging. It’s not fair to have people sit on a waitlist up here, but it’s a shame that they have to travel and there are going to be costs.
“This just speaks to the state of healthcare in Canada.”