Health-care officials in the B.C. interior say the solution to solving the staffing crisis in the emergency department at the South Okanagan General Hospital in Oliver, B.C. is to provide housing to locum doctors.
The request comes in the form of a letter dated Feb. 26 penned by Dr. Kevin Hill, the board director with the South Okanagan Division of Family Practice, and Carl Meadows, the health services administrator with the Interior Health Authority (IHA).
The medical powers say that the rural hospital relies on locums to cover vacation time in clinics and for emergency vacancies. However, providing housing for locums wanting to travel to practice in the South Okanagan has been a “real challenge.”
WATCH: (Aired Jan. 30, 2019) ‘It seems kind of crazy’: Oliver councillors demand action on hospital ER staffing shortages
“We would like to formally request that the Oliver and Osoyoos city councils consider securing physician housing,” the letter says.
“With a dedicated residence close to SOGH, we could ensure easily accessible and comfortable housing for out-of-town physicians travelling to work in our communities.”
The emergency department at the Oliver hospital has faced sporadic closures in recent years due to staffing shortages.
Last November, three of the emergency room physicians, who also run their own family practices, took the rare step of pleading before Oliver town council for help.
“Unfortunately, we anticipate more issues going forward for potential closures, unfilled shifts, and we’re not finding solutions at the moment,” said Dr. Jacob Bellingan at the time.
The doctors told council the problem with ER coverage is the high workload, lack of support and a gap in compensation between Oliver and surrounding hospitals like Penticton Regional Hospital (PRH).
Currently, doctors are compensated by fee for service, which means they are paid per patient.
WATCH: (Aired June 2017) ‘It’s unacceptable’: Oliver residents lament temporary ER closure
The physicians told council they want to see the payment structure changed to the alternative payment plan or APP, which means they’d be compensated per hour.
They said it would cost the province an additional $400,000 a year.
Doctor compensation is not mentioned in the letter issued by Hill and Meadows.
Last week, Interior Health announced changes to emergency department scheduling.
Effective immediately, a physician will be on call between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., instead of remaining on location for an entire shift.
As far as the housing issue, Bill Newell, the chief administrative officer with the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen (RDOS) says the regional hospital board does appear to have the authority to provide “operational support,” but it would be a first for the board.
“The Board would have authority to enter into a rental agreement for housing,” Newell said in a letter issued to the hospital board on March 21.
“This is a serious problem for the South Okanagan/Similkameen and the Board should have a discussion,” he said.
Osoyoos mayor Sue McKortoff says the proposal is still in the discussion stage. It is not known when a housing plan for visiting ER doctors could be implemented.