Doctor shortage needs community response

About 20% of Cranbrook's residents don't have a family doctor; there are no easy answers, and the solution depends on the whole community

Recruiting new family doctors to Cranbrook is a task that requires the whole community to participate, health care professionals are urging.

Three people from the East Kootenay Division of Family Practice spoke at a Cranbrook and District Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Wednesday, June 18 about efforts to fill vacant family doctor position in Cranbrook.

Dr. Greg Andreas, a family physician at the F.W. Green Clinic, told the gathered business people that there are close to 4,000 people in Cranbrook who don’t have a family doctor.

According to B.C. Stats, Cranbrook’s population is between 19,000 and 20,000 people, meaning that roughly 20 per cent of the city’s residents don’t have access to a family doctor.

The shortage of family doctors affects the entire community, explained Jo Ann Lamb, lead for the A GP For Me Initiative by the Division of Family Practice.

“There are impacts in many areas,” said Lamb. “Family physicians will continue to be overtaxed and their job satisfaction may go down. People will continue to go without longitudinal care and relationship with a physician, so they have fragmented care. And there is an economic impact on a community that people may consider not coming to because there is not enough health care available to them.”

Meanwhile, as reported in the Townsman on Monday, June 16, doctors in the hospital emergency department are also increasingly overtaxed as those orphaned patients are forced into the hospital for care, which is not ideal care for the patient.

“We have complaints from other colleagues — quite rightly so — that they are being overused in the hospital,” said Dr. Andreas. “We understand that. A patient needs care; they are going to look for some way of obtaining that care. We have to support them in that. However, we also have to support them towards a better line of care.”

The common suggestion of opening a walk-in clinic in Cranbrook would not solve the problem, Dr. Andreas went on.

“A lot of people say, ‘Why don’t you just get a walk-in clinic?’ We need physicians for that walk-in clinic,” he said. “(In existing clinics) we’ve got space; we need the physician to develop those relationships so (patients) don’t have to go to emergency at two in the morning for something that has been troubling them for three or four weeks because they can’t get in to see the GPs, who are stressed already.”

Now, community partners in Cranbrook are putting their heads together to come up with ways to recruit GPs to fill at least five vacant positions.

Family doctors, along with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, the College of the Rockies, Interior Health, the City of Cranbrook and the Regional District of East Kootenay, have formed a task force to work towards solving the doctor shortage.

Recently, the group rolled out the red carpet for one physician from Canada’s east coast who is considering a move to Cranbrook. After speaking to local GPs, the physician was given a tour of Cranbrook by a city councillor, before meeting with business leaders at a special luncheon.

There’s no word yet on whether the doctor has decided to move to Cranbrook.

Lamb said that doctors move to a community for many reasons.

“The fact is: physicians do not come to a community just to work. They come to a community to live and possibly raise a family,” said Lamb. “What’s important to physicians when they are relocating is: is there work for their spouse? Often that is the biggest barrier to somebody coming to a community; if their spouse cannot find work then they will look elsewhere. Schools are very important, and other amenities, recreation, etc, in the community are very important to their decision on where they will go.”

Dr. Andreas added that providing work-life balance for a physician often means they stay for a long time.

“If the partner is happy, the children are happy, and the balance of life is good, the person is ours. If we can get someone here and they are happy, we’ve got someone who is often here for 20, 30 years. That’s an incredible contribution to the community medically.”

Cranbrook is far from the only community experiencing a doctor shortage, and we are competing with other communities around the world to recruit family physicians.

“It’s a human resource issue for the whole world. We are in competition with Australia, we are in competition with the United States, and we are in competition with other towns in Canada and British Columbia. So we just have to get used to that. Our patients are basically vying for the medical attention of physicians from just about anywhere else in the world,” said Dr. Andreas.

Lamb said that there is a cash bonus for physicians who decide to move to Cranbrook. But other communities have larger incentives.

“One community built a house for physicians to live in. Sometimes the community puts together a cash incentive,” she said.

With this level of competition, making the physician feel welcome and fulfilled here is vital, she went on.

“What is most important we feel is that the physician finds the right fit for them, in not only the work but in the community. That way they will stay.”

Dr. Andreas called on the entire Cranbrook community to come together to entice physicians into the area.

“If you have a contact, talk up Cranbrook. Tell them about the fantastic skiing. Tell them about the fantastic golfing, trout fishing. Invite them out. Any of the clinics that have space in them would be only happy to tell them about the business plan in each clinic,” he said.

“If we can approach someone and say, ‘This is what the physicians are doing, and this is what the community is busy doing,’ the physician’s lights go on. I can only see that happening for people who want to move here if we can say it’s a dynamic situation with the medical and wellness of the community. Because we can provide medical care; you guys contribute significantly to the overall wellness of the community.”

As well as efforts to bring new doctors to Cranbrook, the GP For Me program is working on long-term plans to avoid landing in the same situation again in the future.

“We need to look after what’s going on now but we also need to develop that strategy that will allow us not to find ourselves in this position,” said Lamb.

Patti Phillips, coordinator of the Division of Family Practice, said one tactic is bringing Interior Health nurses into local medical clinics to work side by side with a family doctor.

“Some of you may have experienced some appointments where you have spent the majority of the time with the nurse and the last little bit of time with the physician. The nurse does a lot of the follow-up,” said Phillips.

“It not only frees up the physician but it really offers more comprehensive care.”