South Peace Struggling to Fill Doctor Shortage

Lynsey Kitching

A new report says over the last five years, the number of doctors in Canada has increased at a rate three times faster than that of the population.
The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) says there were more than 72,500 physicians caring for patients in 2011, a rise of 14 percent since 2007. The Canadian population grew 4.7 percent over the same time period.
The report also found that more doctors are practicing in rural Canada compared to five years earlier, including 15 percent of the country’s general practitioners. “The encouraging news is that the gap between the number of urban and rural family physicians is decreasing,” Geoff Ballinger, CIHI’s manager of health human resources, said Thursday in a statement.
The CIHI report also found a growing proportion of doctors are female. Last year, about 36 percent of Canada’s doctors were women — a jump of 23 percent from 2007. Over the same period, the number of male physicians rose by just nine percent.
In the South Peace there are four female doctors practicing medicine and despite improvements on a national level, some rural communities, like Tumbler Ridge, continue to face doctor shortages.
The doctor shortage has forced closures or reduced hours at hospital emergency departments in several rural BC communities.
Here in the South Peace, over the last five years the number of doctors has remained stable rising from 27.5 doctors in 2007 to 28.5 in 2012.
Dr. Becky Temple, Northeast Medical Director talks about the situation here in Tumbler Ridge, “We do not have all of the vacancies in the South Peace that we have on our manpower plan for physicians filled. It is difficult to recruit for those positions. It’s hard to convince people to move to Tumbler Ridge.”
Trying to convince doctors to move north is not without effort. Dr. Temple says there are multiple incentives given to doctors who are willing to move up here to practice. “BC has some significant incentives. They’re not decided or determined by the health authority; they are decided and determined by the agreement between the British Columbia medical association and the Ministry of Health.”
She continues explaining how doctors here in the north are paid, “Physicians aren’t paid by the health authority, and they’re paid through a branch of the Ministry of Health called the Medical Services Plan. What they’re paid through that plan is either a contract or fee for service basis determined through an agreement between the BC Medical Association and the Ministry of Health.”
The physicians in Tumbler Ridge, by filling  a vacancy in the manpower plan, would automatically through any fee they bill through the medical services plan, charge an extra 20 percent than a fee billed by a physician in a larger centre like Vancouver or Kelowna. This is paid out by the Medical Service Plan, not the patient. In addition there is a flat rate retention of about $24,000 a year for living and working in the community for nine months.
For a physician who moves to Tumbler Ridge to fill a vacancy, they would receive a $20,000 signing bonus for one year of service. The only portion that is added from Northern Health specifically is that the health authority will pay up to $15,000 for receipt of moving expenses. This is supposing the person is moving from an area that is not already part of these rural incentives. This does not apply to a physician moving from Dawson Creek to Tumbler Ridge. It would apply to the doctor moving from out of province or from the south.
Dr. Temple says, “At the moment in the South Peace, in Tumbler Ridge, Chetwynd and Dawson Creek we have significant vacancies to fill. We are actively advertising to fill vacancies. I think we are managing the patient need, but I don’t think we are meeting the level we could be if we had full manpower.”