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Terrace doctor shortage getting worse

Upcoming resignations will push GP numbers below half of what’s needed

The doctor shortage here is about to get worse with three general practitioners about to leave by early summer.

That’ll reduce the number of resident GPs to 10, fully half of what is considered an adequate number given the area population, indicates figures obtained from the Northern Health Authority.

But because not every GP maintains a full clinic practice, the actual number of full-time equivalent general practitioners will drop to 8.5.

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“At this time, Terrace is estimated to need 18-22 full-time equivalents per the Northern Health manpower plan. This will translate to at least 20 physicians,” said Northern Health official Andrea Palmer.

Terrace residents line up early morning for a chance to see a GP at the Lazelle Avenue Medical Clinic, which is not Northern Health owned but is owned privately by the city’s doctors.
Combined with recent GP departures, thousands of people will soon be without a family doctor, something the Northern Health Authority says it recognizes as a growing problem.

“We understand that there are not enough family doctors and this is causing hardship for people, families and physicians in the community,” said Palmer.

For now, Northern Health and local general practitioners are relying on signing up out-of-area doctors called locums working on short and long-term contracts to provide primary care.

The most visible sign of the physician shortage is the daily early morning line up of people on the sidewalk outside of the Lazelle Ave. Medical Clinic who are hoping to see a doctor that day.

With the number of GPs now on the decline, there are more specialists than GPs in Terrace, a total of 15. A further 16 specialists now visit from elsewhere.

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Ironically, the availability of a core of specialists has long been held out as a factor in convincing GPs to set up practice in Terrace and was regarded as a reason the area had a stable group of GPs for years, compared to other cities of its size in the province.

Recruiting general practitioners in B.C. is often a complicated procedure with existing physicians themselves looking for suitable candidates with regional health authorities such as Northern Health also playing a role.

Palmer said Northern Health focuses on recruiting doctors for its own health care facilities such as Mills Memorial Hospital in the expectation this will create a physician base to encourage other physicians to move and set up their own private practices.

That’s about to translate here with more money being funnelled through Northern Health by the provincial health ministry to increase the number of salaried physician positions within the emergency department at Mills Memorial.

READ MORE: Province to boost ER services at Mills Memorial

“I can tell you this is the number one priority now for Northern Health,” said Palmer of the local physician shortage.

Skeena BC Liberal MLA Ellis Ross is well aware of the doctor shortage impact on the community because his constituency office is a few doors down from the Lazelle Ave. Medical Clinic.

People who had been in the line up waiting for the 8 a.m. clinic opening time have been stopping at his office to register their complaints.

“I’ve been in touch with Northern Health,” Ross said this week. “It’s not just money. This is happening all over rural B.C. Young doctors just don’t want to come to the north.”

The challenge is not just in the recruiting of a doctor, it’s also convincing his or her family to live here, Ross said.

“How do you attract people, that’s what it is. It’s a tough problem,” he said.

Ross said the pending construction of a new Mills Memorial Hospital, the opening of which is at least four years away, will help but is not the only factor which will attract physicians.

READ MORE: B.C. Health Minister announces plan for new hospital in Terrace

READ MORE: Mills Memorial Hospital financing formula released

Terrace is not alone either in struggling with a shortage of doctors throughout B.C. or across the country.

One example now being held out as a community response can be found in the rural community of Goderich, Ontario.

With a municipal population of approximately 7,600 and thousands more in the surrounding area, a number of retirements and other factors reduced the number of general practitioners to just five in the early 2000s.

The municipal government then hired its own physician recruiter who conducted tours to attract potential candidates and raised $6 million to build a recreation centre and more money to build a new medical clinic.

There are now 18 general practitioners in Goderich.

While Terrace struggles with finding enough GPs, a recent report from the provincial auditor general indicated that Northern Health is also short more than 20 per cent of its registered nurse workforce.

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About the Author: Rod Link

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