ÎYÂRHE NAKODA – Modernized dental and optometry clinics, additional counselling space and enhanced primary care services are just a few features of the newly expanded Stoney Health Centre.
Stoney Health Services CEO Aaron Khan called the grand opening of the expansion Wednesday (Nov. 22) a “very happy day” for health services staff and the Mînî Thnî community.
The health centre was doubled in size to nearly 18,000-square-feet, also consolidating much of the services formerly offered at satellite locations around the community.
“The benefit of having a bigger facility is we brought all these programs under one roof. Everybody’s under one roof and it’s a really healthy communication piece with our clients,” said Khan.
“If a physician refers clients to an occupational therapist, the occupational therapist is not in another building. They’re all working together as a team to look after the needs of our clients. It’s really going to help in the delivery of services as well as communication.”
The expansion is a response to the needs of a growing population. The facility was originally built in 1998 to serve a population of 2,000 people. Now, the Nation’s population sits around 6,000.
Last year, the health centre saw close to 35,000 patient visits.
“That means, on average, each person is using the health centre five or six times a year,” said Khan. “So, it’s a busy place.”
The addition of eight state-of-the-art exam rooms and a triage room will facilitate the recruitment of additional family doctors and specialists, of which there are about four or five on-site per day.
Prior to the grand opening, Stoney Health also started offering extended hours with walk-in clinics some weekends, which will continue.
“If there’s a wait time to see your family doctor, we try to minimize that with the clinics. With all this, our capacity to see more patients is expanded,” said Khan.
Other new or upgraded services include comprehensive x-ray and clinic lab services, on-site client assessments and prescriptions at Morley Pharmacy, two dedicated cultural rooms for traditional healing practices like smudging, specialized foot care and bathing rooms, and a new IV room to administer iron infusions and antibiotics.
The facility also incorporates an area designated for a future dialysis centre, a specialized service that currently requires travelling to Calgary or further distances to access.
Denise Mitchell, director of mental wellness with Stoney Health, said the growing number of services speaks to the health authority’s multi-disciplinary approach to wellness and culturally sensitive care.
“You can come here and access counselling, you can access primary care, you can see a nurse, you can talk to somebody for mental health, you can speak to an elder. If you don’t want to speak to an elder you can speak to another member of the community,” she said.
Gabriel Young, the community health outreach manager with Stoney Health, is also involved with the Îyârhe Nakoda Youth Program and Mînî Thnî Crisis Support Team. He said a lot of work has been done to inform the community about services available, as well as allow the community to inform its programming.
“To ensure there’s adequate services that are culturally appropriate in the community, that is something we strive for, and that’s something we’re leaning in on more. In terms of mental health, that’s including our cultural and traditional practices as a way of supporting clients and families,” he said.
“We’re just adapting our programming to meet the needs as they arise. The more outreach we do, the more people we help, the more families we talk to, that helps us kind of develop our programs in a way that it’s best suited to meet the needs.”
Planning for the $15 million health centre expansion began in 2017 and broke ground in April 2022. The project is one of a few recent healthcare advancements in Mînî Thnî, including a treatment centre that officially opened in October and a long-term care facility estimated for summer 2025.
Last month, the province also announced plans to create an Indigenous division within Alberta Health, and pledged $20 million for Indigenous communities to develop and operate their own primary health care services and projects.
Khan said he hopes some of the funding directed at Indigenous communities will also help cover rising overhead costs not covered by the province but expected of every healthcare facility.
“Primary care is a provincial responsibility. Our physicians are created by the province. But there’s a lot of other things that we have to cover – equipment, utilities, printing … there’s so many things that go along with primary care. It’s not just a physician model,” he said.
In previous years, Stoney Health has had to pull money from other related programs such as mental or community health to run its primary care model, he noted.
“It’s really not been the best model because it can affect other programming for us,” he said.
While it may not be a perfect model, Chiniki First Nation Chief Aaron Young underscored the progress Îyârhe Nakoda Nation is making improving and Indigenizing its healthcare.
“What we’re promoting is to make sure we bring back the healing that we need in the community. We need to have a facility like this where community members can be comfortable and feel at home because this is home,” he said.
“As Stoney people, we pride ourselves in how we have kept our culture and heritage alive by making sure that we keep our traditions and spirituality. Spirituality goes hand-in-hand with the health and well-being of each individual.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.