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Alberta intends to funnel patients in major cities who need minor surgeries to private clinics and hospitals in smaller communities as part of the government’s bid to cut wait times for more complicated procedures.

Private clinics, which perform operations paid for by the public system, handled roughly 15 per cent of surgeries in Alberta last year. Alberta wants to double the amount of surgical traffic directed toward independent clinics by 2023 as part of a strategy the government released Wednesday.

The plan earmarks $100-million for renovating hospitals, including facilities in rural areas. Alberta expects the spiffed-up buildings, combined with more procedures at private clinics, will increase the number of annual surgeries in the province by 30,000, or 10 per cent, in three years. Doctors performed roughly 293,000 surgeries in Alberta last year.

The changes were announced as Alberta continues to spar with doctors and nurses over compensation. The government, for example, ripped up its contract with doctors last month, even though it did not expire until the end of March. It has also proposed forcing new doctors to work in rural areas. Meanwhile, nurses have already hosted rallies against the government as the two sides fight over salaries and benefits. Critics also fret over whether the government is eroding Alberta’s public health-care system in favour of private businesses.

Tyler Shandro, Alberta’s Health Minister, said the shakeup will make surgery more convenient for patients.

“Albertans are going to get quicker access to the surgeries they need, closer to home,” he told reporters.

The changes include upgrading up to 12 operating rooms at Foothills Medical Centre, which is one of Canada’s largest hospitals. At the same time, Alberta will shift low-risk surgeries out of Foothills to Canmore, High River and independent operations in Calgary. This, the government said, will take pressure off Foothills while creating space for doctors there to perform an increased number of complex surgeries.

In Edmonton, the government will build a new operating room at the Royal Alexandra Hospital, and move low-risk procedures to Fort Saskatchewan, St. Albert and the city’s Grey Nuns Community Hospital. The hospital in Rocky Mountain House will be renovated so more endoscopy procedures can be performed there, which would create more capacity for complex operations at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre. Low-risk procedures, such as cataract surgery, will be bumped to facilities in Innisfail, Stettler, Ponoka and Olds. Facilities in other parts of the province will also receive upgrades.

Tara Jago, a spokeswoman in Mr. Shandro’s office, said the government wants private clinics to perform 30 per cent of the province’s surgeries by 2023. The $100-million pot of cash is strictly for facilities owned and operated by Alberta Health Services, she said, adding that transportation is not included in this funding.

Patients will not be able to choose surgical locations, Mr. Shandro said.

“These choices are going to be [made] by the physician,” he said. “This is going to be about what’s available to the physicians for them to be able to make the decisions about where the right facility is for the right procedure.”

Lorian Hardcastle, a professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in health law, said the province’s desire to outsource more surgeries to independent outfits could be successful should the province provide more details related costs and quality control. Saskatchewan tried to decrease its wait times by using private clinics, but when the provincial government stopped subsidizing those operations, wait times crept back up, she said. The United Conservative Party’s surgical strategy, coupled with its troublesome relationship with doctors and nurses, could weaken Alberta’s public system, she said.

“If the government isn’t going to support a robust public health-care system, public support for public medicare will decline,” Prof. Hardcastle said. “There’s a concern that all of this may undermine the public system.”

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