The current situation
The physician shortage in Fort St. James is seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.
Three physicians have signed on to come and work in Fort St. James, according to a Northern Health announcement last week.
According to Northern Health, as of October, one more physician will be working part time in Fort St. James and two more are scheduled to start full time in January of 2013.
“I’m relieved to know that help is on the way and very thankful that the efforts of Northern Health, the efforts of the community and in particular the efforts of Dr. Paul Stent and Kathy Marchal, who through all of the recruiting process also had to carry on with the operation of the clinic in a very stressful situation,” said Mayor Rob MacDougall.
“It was a great relief for our community as a whole … being able to fill that void,” said Renada Walstrom, a nurse at Nak’azdli Health. “October still feels like a long way away.”
She said it is hard to continue to have to refer clients to Vanderhoof and Prince George, when they so badly need care.
“You constantly hear the desperation in the community and the fear,” said Walstrom.
She said she is very grateful for the hard work of Dr. Paul Stent in staying on when he had hoped to scale back this year towards retirement, but instead had to shoulder the load of running the medical clinic alone.
“I feel really bad for what he’s had to endure for the past year or so,” said Walstrom.
For their part, the Nak’azdli Health Centre has had higher drop-ins and a larger workload and has been bringing in a nurse practitioner twice a month to help.
“I think everybody’s just taken on a bit more of a caseload in dealing with the shortage,” she said. “It’s just that general relief in knowing that that follow-through can be done (with the new doctors).”
“I think that the people that have been impacted the most are the seniors because they don’t have the ability to travel like the younger crowd,” said MacDougall.
This great news came as a result of a campaign to recruit doctors, and Northern Health credits community involvement and recruiter collaboration with much of the final success.
“The community was just incredible in how they participated in the recruitment process,” said April Hughes of Northern Health.
The concept, new to the area, involves the recruiters for Northern Health and members of the community coming up with a weekend itinerary for interested physicians doing site visits to the area.
So far, the three physicians who have agreed to come and two more physicians who came on the weekend of July 21 were greeted by Nak’azdli elders, toured through the medical facilities in the area, taken to community events and shown some of the local attractions like the lake, ski hill, golf course and area trails before being treated to a catered dinner at a local home.
The three physicians who are coming happened to visit during the fishing derby and Canada Day celebrations, and the more recent visiting physicians came and participated in Salmon Day tasting and events at the National Historic Site.
“So they get to see the community activities in action and they get to participate in the community activities, so they really get a sense of the community and who the people are,” said Hughes.
She said hospital and other staff even stayed after shifts or came in on their own time to help orient the visiting doctors.
The catered dinner at lakeshore homes allowed the visitors to see lakeside living for themselves and enjoy a social setting with local community members.
“The whole purpose of this is to try and provide individuals a sense of what the community is about and what the community can offer and what kind of community supports are available to a family who chooses to come and live in the north,” said Hughes.
“It’s just another example of the community pulling together when something is needed,” said Walstrom. “I think it was well put-together.”
According to MacDougall, efforts to address the problem began in mid-January, and have been going ever since.
“The efforts have paid off,” said MacDougall. “The solution isn’t a hundred per cent complete, we’re still going to have some frustrations moving forward and still are asking for patience from the community, in time everything will be resolved.”
MacDougall expressed gratitude to all those involved in the recruitment process and the Vanderhoof physicians and medical staff as well in helping to show the support network incoming physicians can have and in supporting this community by helping with coverage of emergency services.
The physician coming on part time in October has been living in Whistler and runs a business which places physicians into rural and remote First Nations communities, in particular in the north, so he is familiar with outpost and remote work with both First Nations and non First Nations.
The two physicians coming full time in January of 2013 are a husband and wife team, and while another husband and wife team, Dr. Augustus Van Der Spuy and Dr. Shani Van Der Spuy felt they couldn’t manage being a couple and covering two-thirds of the on-call required to maintain the emergency room at the Stuart Lake Hospital, Hughes said this will not be an issue with the incoming doctors.
Northern Health is still working on changing the local health care model so the incoming physicians will only need to fulfill two full-time positions, and will not be overworked.
As Fort St. James is still slated for five full-time physician positions, Northern Health will be continuing to recruit more physicians to fill one and a half more positions for the community.
As Dr. Stent also steps back, they will work to fill in even further, as he had planned to scale back his hours earlier this year, but was held back by the physician shortage.
Knowing two and a half positions will now be filled, in addition to Dr. Stent’s (currently) full time position, will take some pressure off the community for the time being.
Hughes said Northern Health is still working to secure further locum physicians for the community to fill in for shorter periods for both the medical clinic and the emergency room, but it has been difficult as many locum physicians book up to six months in advance and many choose to take time off in the summer.
Hughes called the situation of having to recruit locums on short notice for the community through the summer “less than ideal.”
Hughes said the collaborative efforts to recruit further physicians will continue.
“The community has just done a great job and just more of the same is exactly what’s needed,” she said.