The MLA for Nelson-Creston brought the issue of physician recruitment to the legislature this week as she pressured the Minister of Health to address this struggle existing in many Kootenay communities.
“The Minister needs to be aware of the healthcare challenges that our communities in the Kootenays are facing, “ said Michelle Mungall. “I met with the IHA, and spoke directly with CEO Robert Halpeny, but ultimately, the Minister needs to take action to address the issue of physician shortages.”
Mungall cited the sporadic ER closures in Kaslo, doctor shortages in Nelson and orphaned patients in Creston while questioning the Minister about improving physician recruitment efforts.
She also pointed out that the government in their pre-election throne speech committed to improvements for rural patients, but on paper the recent Ministry of Health service plan only mentions “rural areas” once when it refers to investment in information technology services.
“Physician recruitment problems are causing larger healthcare issues in the Kootenays,” said Mungall. “This government needs to do more to ensure that our rural communities have the doctors we need.”
Health Minister Terry Lake responded to Mungall by saying the problem of physician recruitment extended beyond Nelson-Creston. In fact, he said, “It’s a problem around the western world.”
“It is a concern in my constituencies — probably the number one concern of constituents who come through my office,” said Lake. “So it’s a challenge for all of us to meet the needs of rural British Columbia when it comes to not just health care professionals but actually all professionals.”
Through the Joint Standing Committee on Rural Issues, Lake said rural recruitment, particularly in emergency departments, is being dealt with. They have created a program that provides up to $200,000 each year to assist emergency department in providing scheduled, reliable public access to emergency services in rural hospitals.
Rural incentives also include paying off student loans and providing extra locum fees for physicians going to rural communities, added Lake.
Mungall said communities in the northern part of the province don’t appear to have similar problems recruiting physicians.
“In fact, they have cited success in many of their recruitment efforts. So I’m wondering if the ministry has done any analysis on why IH in particular is having this recruitment difficulty,” said Mungall on Wednesday in the legislature.
Lake explained Northern Health has a much smaller population and fewer health care facilities compared to Interior Health that “covers the size of most European countries” with about 23 hospitals.
“So they don’t have the same challenges in terms of the quantity of physicians that are required,” responded Lake to Mungall.
Between 2003-2004 and 2011-12, the number of doctors practicing in rural areas has increased by 26 per cent, said Lake. According to the last available statistics from the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, the Canadian average was 1,153 rural residents for each rural general practitioner, whereas in BC it is far lower at 874 rural residents per general practitioner.
Mungall continued to encourage the Liberals to honour their commitment to rural health made prior to the election this spring.
“There’s something going on here that we need to address,” she said.