A concerted effort starting this time last year is paying off with a doubling of physicians now practising here, resulting in thousands of people being able to once more have a family doctor.
And more are on their way, says Dr. Jaco Fourie, the Northern Health Authority’s northwest medical director, in describing a reversal of what he called a “dark time” in early 2018 for local medical services.
“It’s as if the sun has now broken through the clouds,” Fourie says last week of 20 family physicians now available to serve patients, a doubling of the 11 here back then.
A wave of retirements and doctors moving on for various reasons in late 2017 and early 2018 resulted in the doctor shortage crisis, ending years of what had been a fairly stable and tight-knit medical community, leaving as many as 10,000 people without family doctor.
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That sparked the formation of a committee made up of the Northern Health Authority, local governments, First Nations and community organizations boosted by a recruitment and retention fund over and above incentives regularly provided by Northern Health and the provincial government and other measures, including a video financed by the City of Terrace.
“It was fantastic to have the community come together,” says Fourie of the recruitment effort. “It was unbelievable.”
“There are now patients being attached [to family physicians]. People are being attached like heck and I can say soon everyone who wants to be attached, can do so.”
Although cautioning that numbers can fluctuate, there could be as many as 28 family physicians here by the middle of summer, Fourie continued.
But not every family physician will be practising family medicine full-time because many of the new arrivals are also working in the Mills Memorial Hospital’s emergency department.
And that dual arrangement has helped ease a crisis that was as large as the lack of family doctors, says Fourie.
“We were within two days of closing it down last summer,” says Fourie of the ER. “We were bringing in doctors from all over the province to provide a service. It was an absolute crisis.”
What was then put in place were contracts for doctors to work in the emergency room part time and then work as family physicians the rest of the time.
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The emergency room contracts gave doctors a solid and dependable income from which to branch out, Fourie says
“I give credit to the province and Northern Health for stepping up here,” he adds
“From being on the verge of closing the ER we now have a [staffing] schedule booked until June.”
Some of the new physicians here or on their way were originally foreign-trained and upon arrival in Canada, went through additional training to meet Canadian standards.
In return, they are in Terrace to work for three years as their obligation for receiving that training.
“We have physicians from all over — Nigeria, Libya, Sudan and South Africa,” says Fourie of the system called “return of service”.
With a sizable complement of family doctors now here and more on their way and staffing at the Mills ER stabilized, Fourie says the focus can now shift to long-term quality of care.
“We’re over the crisis mode now. With our two new clinics, people can now choose the health care model they want,” he says. “We can now have an after-hours component. That’s huge.”
Fourie says recruitment efforts are continuing in that the local goal is to have the equivalent of 24 full-time practising family physicians, a number that fits the population of the immediate and surrounding area.
He also gave credit to a local family who has provided a townhouse-style duplex in which newly-arrived physicians can stay until they settle in or who are visiting to check out the area.
“That’s been an immense help, having this local philanthropic family do this. There was no way we could have afforded to do this on our own,” Fourie says of the duplex accommodations. “They’re fully furnished. What it shows is that we mean business.”
The local recruitment and retention fund, which amounted to $60,000 and which was provided by the North West Regional Hospital District, covered the rent and expenses.