Health Care Roadshow comes to Tumbler Ridge

Trent Ernst, Editor


In the high school gymnasium, about 30 kids are cycling between a half dozen stations set up around the floor. At one, students look at an X-ray of a foot with a number of small white dots embedded in it. “What is this?” asks the medical student behind the table. “Someone shot themselves in the foot with a shotgun,” I whisper to one of the students. “Or else they were really persistent with a BB gun.”

At another, the miracle of childbirth is being explained in perhaps a little more detail than is comfortable for a group of boys. At yet another, students peer through a microscope at a variety of slides.

Each table showcases a different career possibility in Health Care. In addition to midwifery, radiology and biomedical, other stations talk nursing, physical and occupational therapy, dentistry and laboratory technology.

Behind each table is a student or pair of students from a variety of schools across the province: The University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), the College of New Caledonia (CNC), the University of British Columbia (UBC), the University of Victoria (UVic), the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), and Thompson Rivers University (TRU).

Their mission? To educate local students about the wide range of health career opportunities, from the perspective of a student training in those programs. It’s students speaking to students to encourage more students in the north to get involved in health care.

The Healthcare Traveling Roadshow started as a grass-roots initiative in 2010 to help address rural health care workforce shortages. “In the five years the Roadshow has been running, we’ve been to 17 northern communities as far south as Clearwater, as far north as Fort Nelson, and as far west as Kitimat,” says Dr. Sean Maurice, a senior lab instructor with the Northern Medical Program at UNBC. Maurice helped to create the Roadshow and has been part of this educational tour since it first began in 2010. “This is the first time we’ve been to Tumbler Ridge, Dawson Creek and Fort St. John.”

Maurice says there’s two angles to the roadshow. “We’re trying to inspire high school kids to consider careers in health care,” he says, “and we’re bringing our health care service students into the area and allow them to envision a possible career here. They get to see the school, meet some of the health care professionals in town, see the recreational facilities…”

“Research nationwide tells us that students from a rural origin are more likely to settle in a rural location,” he says. “There’s a disconnect between how many physicians choose to settle in a rural area and how much of the population is rural. One publication says 22 percent of the population is rural, but only ten percent of newly trained physicians chose to settle in rural areas.”

He says there are some success stories that have already come out of the travelling road show. “Two years ago, we brought a physiotherapy student to Vanderhoof, and she fell in love with it there, and she’s now working there. On this road show we have a lab tech student from Fort Nelson who was a high school student when we visited there, and she fully credits the roadshow with planting the seed of an idea for a career that she hadn’t thought of before.”

He acknowledges that people specializing will need to settle in larger areas, as there’s not much call for, say, a full-time gynecologist in Tumbler Ridge. But the hope is that people trained in more rural areas, in more northern areas, will tend to settle in these areas. Maurice says they’re already seeing results. “Having a program in Prince George feels more accessible for students in, says, Tumbler Ridge. It’s more affordable, the city is a more reasonable size. We’re training students closer to home. It’s still early year for the medical program, we’ve only been around for ten years, but early indications are good. About a third of our graduates that have settled into permanent practice are in the north, and two thirds are in rural practice. We see that as a good sign of success.”

Rural general family practice, says Maurice, almost needs to be recognized as a specialty unto itself, as doctors who work in rural areas have to be excellent generalists. This can lead to some tension, as most new graduates don’t have the experience to handle the wide variety of cases that can come their way. “They have to be excellence in improvising. There are issues with, say maternity, but one of the funders of this roadshow is the Rural Coordination Centre of BC. They have funding for rural students to get experience, they have funding for rural doctors to go to conferences and get training. There are ways rural doctors can keep their skills current, and there are agencies that can help them do that, as travel is more expensive from rural areas.”

And the other thing to note, says Maurice, is they aren’t working in a vacuum. “If you come in with a head injury, you’re not going to be able to see a specialist, but an excellent generalist will know what they can do to stabilize that person for transportation to a bigger centre, if needed. One of the things we’re working on at UNBC is Tele-health and technology to help. Head trauma can lead to bleeding. There are some cases if the pressure is increasing, you’re going to die. If you can get on the phone with a neurologist and explain the symptoms, maybe send an X-Ray electronically, they can tell you ‘the patient will do better if you drill a hole to release the pressure.’ These things have been happening already, and we’re doing what we can to improve it. While it might not be the same treatment that someone would get in Vancouver, it’s as good as it’s going to get out here, and better than someone from Vancouver who would never have to deal with something like that.

Even more to the point, says Maurice, is Tumbler Ridge already has an excellent generalist. “If there was no doctor here in Tumbler Ridge, and someone were to want to come here and start a practice right out of school, that would be really ambitious. But one of the reasons people look at settling in a place like this is that they would be part of a group. They would have support. If you were here and dealing with something particularly hard, but you knew you could call Dr. Helm in to help, that means a lot.”

Quinn Jentles is a third year medical student out of UNBC. He’s originally from Fort St John, and did the Roadshow last year. He enjoyed it so much that he got involved with this year’s roadshow specifically to bring it to Fort St. John. “We’ve had a fabulous response from the student. It was great to be right back in my old high school and remember what it was like. These initiatives are the answer to ensure a long term, sustainable solution for the problems we’ve been facing in health care.”

Jentles says his plan is to head back home once he’s done his training. “I got into medicine with that idea,” he says. “I have to still sort out what sort of doctor I want to be, but I’ve always intended to head back. Even though the challenge there is great, so is the opportunity.”

Jentles says that the outdoors are spectacular here, all the communities in the north have these opportunities to one degree or another. “There’s several in the group this year who have been really impressed by the communities, and are starting to maybe look at heading this way. The things that sets apart one community from another, where we all enjoy outdoor recreation opportunities, is the feeling of belonging and welcoming. If the community is there with open arms saying ‘we want to make this work, not just for you, but for your family in the long term. Tell us what you’d like to do with your career, and we’ll do what we can to make that happen.’ It’s always going to come back to the people.”