Failure to recruit doctors could force BC community to limit ER hours to 9-5

Enticing doctors to some B.C. communities has been a challenge.
Enticing doctors to some B.C. communities has been a challenge. ICandyFilm / YouTube

The challenge for one B.C. community to recruit new physicians could have a drastic effect on the emergency room hours for residents.

The village of New Denver in southeastern B.C., along the shore of Slocan Lake, was going to change its emergency room hours at Slocan Community Health Centre (SCHC) to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. starting Feb. 1.

The emergency room would also be closed on statutory holidays.

However, Interior Health says it is now delaying the decision until the spring.

This is pending any additional recruitment efforts and further discussions on a long-term service model.

At this time, the emergency department in New Denver will remain open 24/7. This will be contingent on physician availability.

“While we continue to face significant physician staffing challenges, elected officials and representatives from the community were clear in our discussions yesterday that they felt more time was needed to prepare for a change to current emergency department services,” says Karen Bloemink, executive director IH-East, Hospitals and Communities Integrated Services in a release. “Based on that feedback, we will do everything possible to keep the emergency department open while additional discussions take place in the months ahead.”

With only one permanent physician in place, there may still be temporary interruptions to emergency department services at SCHC. Interior Health will advise the community in advance if the emergency department will be temporarily closed due to limited physician staffing.

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Interior Health has been trying to recruit for a new physician for eight months but there have been no applicants.

One of the barriers has been requiring doctors to work in the emergency department overnight and on weekends.

The SCHC “is the only community health centre for a 150 kilometre stretch between Castlegar and Nelson in the south, Nakusp in the north and our natural catchment area is probably several thousand people,” said Dr. Chuck Burkholder, who has been a physician in the region for 24 years.

The Slocan Lake Chamber of Commerce even made a video, featuring Burkholder, to try and attract physicians to the hospital.

About 15 per cent of British Columbians don’t have access to a regular family physician and a report published in December in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggests the problem will only get worse as a wave of physicians near retirement age.

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READ MORE: B.C. doctor shortage about to get worse as more physicians reach retirement age

According to billing data, the average doctor in B.C. retires at the age of 65, rural doctors retire two years earlier than that at the age of 63 and female physicians retire at 61.

Some B.C. communities are even going as far as to woo doctors with added bonuses.

In the past, Quesnel has offered a free car and rent to entice doctors to the city.

B.C. NDP Health Minister Adrian Dix said getting people access to primary care providers is one of his top priorities for 2018.

READ MORE: B.C. health minister sets goal to increase access to medical care

“Part of our effort is to develop urgent care centres but also to work with doctors and nurse practitioners and others is to ensure that people get the care they need in their community, that they don’t end up in hospital because they don’t receive the appropriate primary care and that is a huge priority for the health care system and one I’m focused on,” Dix said.

At this time, for New Denver, they are hopeful doctors will want to move to the region soon.

“The reality is, we cannot sustain 24/7 emergency department services and, if we continue as we are now, we risk losing our ability to provide ongoing primary care that will meet the majority of health care needs for local residents,” Karen Bloemink, executive director IH – East, Hospitals and Communities Integrated Services.

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“Our priority is to ensure residents can access a permanent physician who they see regularly; a physician who is familiar with their history and their ongoing health care needs.”