A meeting of elected officials and health care officials Sunday has laid the groundwork for a widespread community campaign to find doctors in response to a critical shortage which has left an estimated 10,000 Terrace and area residents without a family physician.
Three family doctors are due to leave the community by early summer, leaving just 10 in what the Northern Health Authority acknowledges as the largest crisis in northern health care.
“We have a community that’s really suffering at the moment,” said Dr. Jaco Fourie, the authority’s northwest medical director who organized the Sunday session.
Finding and then keeping family doctors on the scale of what’s required is beyond the resources of Northern Health, resulting in Sunday’s meeting to establish a comprehensive campaign, he added.
While there are financial inducements provided by the province and a provincial association of physicians to encourage doctors to move to underserved communities and short-term financial top ups offered by Northern Health, the past experiences of other communities who successfully overcame their own shortages have shown that the community needs to be involved, Fourie said.
“The intent is to tap into the creativity of people, to have a network,” he said.
There have already been spontaenous offers of support, ranging from accommodation for physician site visits, to short-term accommodation for arriving doctors until they get settled, to offers of vehicles for physicians making site visits.
The housing offer came in the form of a local family willing to purchase a duplex with each unit having three bedrooms for short-term physician use.
It arose out of a chance meeting between Fourie and an individual, leaving Fourie astounded at the prospect.
“What we hear is that there’s a shortage of housing, even for locums,” said Fourie of doctors agreeing to work in Terrace under short term contracts.
“With medical school and other costs, doctors have a lot of debt to pay,” he said of younger physicians ready to begin their careers.
What’s needed is a local group with its own recuitment budget to cover the monthly costs of using the duplex, to covering entertainment costs for visiting doctors to providing daycare for a physician’s children, said Fourie.
“Northern Health will fly in a physician for a site visit, but it doesn’t have a budget to fly in the physician’s family,” he added.
Fourie cited Quesnel in the Cariboo which responded to its own physician shortage by offering rent-free acommodations and free vehicles with the muncipal government even hiring its own recruiter.
It focussed not just on a physician but on the needs of a physician’s family, he said.
“A lot of doctors won’t come unless there’s a job for their spouse,” Fourie continued.
Sunday’s meeting is being regarded as the start for what could eventually be a standalone society aimed at finding and keeping doctors, City of Terrace chief administrative officer Heather Avison told Terrace council members at their April 9 meeting.
One item already identified as being needed is a video promoting Terrace and area, Avison said.
To that end council unanimously approved spending up to $15,000 for a promotional video through a motion moved by councillor Stacey Tyers and seconded by councillor Brian Downie.
While the effort builds to mount a community recruitment campaign, Northern Health has been successful in getting more money from the province to increase the number of doctor positions in the emergency room at Mills Memorial Hospital.
Through what’s called the alternate payments program, doctors wanting to work in the ER will be offered part time contracts in the hope they will then also work as family physicians.
It’s meant to provide stability in the ER as well as financial stability for the physician who can then use the skills they’ve learned in addition to increasing the level of community primary care, said Fourie.
“I can tell you we have a physician, a Canadian physician, who is to start April 15 as half time in the ER and half time as a GPA, general practitioner/anesthetist in Mills Memorial Hospital,” he said.
Fourie anticipates the ER will eventually have as many as 10 physicians under contract amounting to 7.5 full time equivalent positions.
Overall the goal is to have a Terrace family practitioner base of at least 20 doctors which, when added to the core of specialists here, would make for a local medical community of at least 40 people.
“Our aim is that every person who wants a family physician will have one,” said Fourie, adding that the best model for primary care remains having a person connected with a family physician instead of having to rely on a walk-in clinic.
Sunday’s meeting was attended by officials from the Northern Health Authority, the North West Regional Hospital District, the Nass Valley and elected officials including Terrace mayor Carol Leclerc.