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Alberta doctors call for action on women's health in new awareness campaign

Hands hold a decorative model uterus on a pink background in this file photo. Alberta doctors are urging that women's health be prioritized by decision-makers at the federal and provincial levels. (Shutterstock - image credit)
Hands hold a decorative model uterus on a pink background in this file photo. Alberta doctors are urging that women's health be prioritized by decision-makers at the federal and provincial levels. (Shutterstock - image credit)

A new public awareness campaign, launched by Alberta doctors, calls on the provincial and federal governments to prioritize women's health.

The medical staff associations for all five health zones, representing 4,700 physicians across the province, are behind the campaign and website, prioritizemyhealth.ca.

The call to action comes at a time when many Albertans don't have access to a family doctor.

"We're in a situation where access to care is continuing to decrease for every Albertan. But we also know that women are always disproportionately affected," said Dr. Shazma Mithani, an Edmonton emergency room physician and spokesperson for the group.

According to Mithani, the disparity is concerning and the list of examples is long.

"[There's a] lack of access to IUD care, lack of access to birth control, lack of access to things like menopause care or even cervical cancer screening," she said.

"This is something that affects the health of every single woman and I would say is certainly not being made a priority right now."

Led by the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association, a committee made up of 12 physicians from across the province looked at a number of women's health topics. It developed a list of key recommendations for the federal and provincial governments.

Provincial recommendations include:

  • Menopause support, including access to specialized clinics.

  • Free menstrual products at provincial facilities.

  • More access to obstetricians and gynecologists and funding for a comprehensive clinic in Lethbridge.

  • Women's health strategy, including auditor general's report and a women's advocate or ombudsman.

  • Support incarcerated women with pregnancy screening and testing for STIs (sexually transmitted infections) as they enter provincial correctional facilities.

  • Support victims of domestic violence with confidential miscarriage and abortion care (no records).

  • Free hormonal therapy and IUDs for Albertans without coverage.

Federal recommendations include:

  • National workforce strategy, including review of current training and workforce capacity.

  • Clarity from Health Canada on the effectiveness of emergency contraception, especially for people with higher weight and BMI.

  • Pregnancy and STI screening upon entry to federal correctional facilities.

  • Phone line, set up by Health Canada, for telemedicine, abortion medication services to ensure confidential access. Study barriers to abortion access in Alberta.

  • Ensure free contraception for people in all provinces.

One key concern, according to Mithani, is the severe shortage of obstetrician gynecologists in and around Lethbridge.

"Even things as simple as prenatal care … I think people in the bigger cities like Edmonton and Calgary really take for granted. Rural Alberta, in particular the south zone, really has inequitable access." said Mithani.

The group is calling on the province to provide immediate funding to set up a multidisciplinary women's health clinic in Lethbridge to provide women in the city and surrounding rural communities with access to prenatal care, postnatal care and gynecological care and contraception.

"Even when we expand that to things like birth control or access to abortion care, these are things where, depending on where you live in the province, your access is going to be different, which should never be the case for any sort of health care," said Mithani.

"Access should be as equitable as possible. And we can see that there actually is a significant difference between whether you live in a big city or whether you live in the smaller cities and more rural parts of Alberta."

The website includes links to a letter writing campaign, and the group plans to release new videos each week until the end of February.

"There's an underrepresentation in research. There's an underrepresentation in public awareness. There's an underrepresentation in the amount of care women can access," Mithani said.

The committee met with federal health officials in October and with Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange earlier this month.

CBC News requested an interview with LaGrange but was told she was unable to accommodate for scheduling reasons.

In an emailed statement, LaGrange pointed to last year's mandate letter and said one of her priorities "is to improve health care for women and girls in Alberta and addressing the challenges they face getting the care they need."

She said the province is working to increase access to HPV immunization, cancer screening and preventative health care and is supporting other women's health initiatives, including:

  • $10 million each to the Alberta Women's Health Foundation Legacy Grant and the Calgary Health Foundation for women-focused research, advocacy and care.

  • $2 million a year in grants to five programs supporting vulnerable babies and mothers.

  • $7 million annually to prevent sexually transmitted infections and care for people living with them.

According to the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association, the group has not received any more information since its meeting with LaGrange.

"We need to be making the public and governments and decision-makers more aware about these issues so that we can get women access to the health care that they need and deserve," Mithani said.