More than 3,000 people in Cranbrook will be without a family doctor next month as five physicians are closing down their family practices this year.
Dr. Sheela Mistry and Dr. Rina Fourie at the Associate Medical Clinic will both close their practice in July, leaving about 1,800 patients without a doctor.
Dr. Bob Cutler at the Green Clinic is retiring this summer, meaning his 1,400 patients will no longer have a doctor.
Dr. Stuart Macdonald at the F.W. Green Clinic switched from family practice to emergency medicine in March. His 1,000 patients were mostly covered by other doctors.
Dr. Helena Buchar at the Green Clinic is moving her practice to Kimberley, and many of her patients will travel there to remain in her care.
“The more concerning cases where we are going to have a great deal of unattached patients are Dr. Cutler, Dr. Mistry and Dr. Fourie,” said Dr. James Heilman, an emergency physician at East Kootenay Regional Hospital.
“We have 3,200 people who currently have a family physician, and who will not have a family physician come July when these three physicians are either leaving or retiring.”
It’s normal for doctors to leave for various reasons, he said.
“Dr. Mistry and Dr. Fourie are moving to be closer to their family, which is completely understandable. Dr. Cutler has had a very long career and he has served our community for many, many years. He has just come to the end of his career. These different things have combined to result in three family physicians leaving.
“People leaving communities is a normal part of business; the question is why are we having so much difficulty recruiting new people to replace them.”
Physicians who work in the Cranbrook hospital’s emergency department are concerned about the effect on health care in the community as people who no longer have a family doctor are forced to visit the emergency department whenever they require medical attention.
“Currently in the emergency department, we see about 22,000 patient visits a year,” said Dr. Heilman.
“If we have another 3,200 people who come to the emergency department on average three times each, that could increase the amount of patient visits we are seeing in the emergency department by nearly 50 per cent.”
There is only one physician working at a time in the emergency department, he explained, aside from five hours a day when there is two.
“If your volumes increase by 50 per cent, one issue is that the space within the facility just isn’t set up to handle that,” said Dr. Heilman.
“The second issue is that it’s not just physicians, it’s also nursing staff and unit clerks. There is not enough of any of these to handle a 50 per cent increase in patient volume.”
That will mean longer wait times, which means patients become frustrated, which has a negative effect on staff in the hospital, he explained.
“We within the emergency department do our best to see people as quickly and as safely as possible. The longer people wait, justifiably the more people get upset about the duration of the wait. If we do see our volumes increasing by 50 per cent, we will do the best we can to help people, but wait times could be substantially longer.”
What’s more, emergency physicians don’t have the same kind of training and skills as a family doctor, he said. For instance, Dr. Heilman hasn’t performed a pap test since he graduated from residency 10 years ago.
“That’s just not part of emergency medicine,” he said. “The scope of care in the emergency department – what services we provide – are different than those provided by a family physician.”
Hospital doctors are asking for patience from people who are waiting at emergency.
“The emergency department is likely to become busier and there are going to be longer wait times,” said Dr. Heilman. “We request people’s patience with respect to being seen.”
Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. A local committee made up of physicians, elected officials and business leaders are working to recruit doctors to fill the eight positions now vacant in Cranbrook.
On Wednesday, June 18, members of that team will speak at the Cranbrook and District Chamber of Commerce luncheon. The general public is invited to attend the luncheon and hear about initiatives to recruit family physicians to the East Kootenay.
Tickets cost $20, and it includes a buffet lunch. Registration is essential; phone the Chamber at 250-426-5914 before June 17 to reserve a seat.
Stay tuned to the Townsman for more information about physician recruitment in Cranbrook.