Healthcare — access to adequate health services — is an ongoing problem across rural BC. The challenge for one community to recruit new physicians could have a drastic effect on the emergency room hours for residents.
The village of New Denver in southeastern B.C., along the shore of Slocan Lake, was going to change its emergency room hours at Slocan Community Health Centre (SCHC) to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. starting Feb. 1.
The emergency room would also be closed on statutory holidays.
However, Interior Health decided to delay the decision, pending any additional recruitment efforts and further discussions on a long-term service model.
“While we continue to face significant physician staffing challenges, elected officials and representatives from the community were clear in our discussions yesterday that they felt more time was needed to prepare for a change to current emergency department services,” said Karen Bloemink, executive director IH-East, Hospitals and Communities Integrated Services in a release. “Based on that feedback, we will do everything possible to keep the emergency department open while additional discussions take place in the months ahead.”
The SCHC “is the only community health centre for a 150 kilometre stretch between Castlegar and Nelson in the south, Nakusp in the north and our natural catchment area is probably several thousand people,” said Dr. Chuck Burkholder, who has been a physician in the region for 24 years.
Fast forward to late May this year.
As reported in a Valley Voice article by Jan McMurray, about 200 people came out to the Slocan Community Health Centre on Friday, May 25 on very short notice to be part of “a massive public show of indignation.” Colin Moss, chair of the Slocan District Chamber of Commerce Health Committee, started spreading the word about the rally on the evening of Thursday, May 24. In less than 24 hours, the community was mobilized in a big way. The rally was called after New Denver area rallies to support the Slocan Community Health Centre Interior Health representative reportedly discouraged an interested physician from applying for one of the two vacant positions in New Denver. The IH representative reportedly told Dr. Candace Munro that the future status of the Slocan Community Health Centre (SCHC) is uncertain, and that her overhead costs would be high at the SCHC clinic.
Dr. Munro found out about the vacancies at SCHC via the video produced by ICandy Films for the Slocan District Chamber of Commerce Health Committee. Having just finished her residency in Goose Bay, Labrador, she came here with her husband and young child at the beginning of May to ‘try out’ New Denver. Now, after her conversation with the IH representative, Dr. Munro is reportedly having second thoughts. She and her family are currently away on vacation. About an hour before the 4 pm rally, Interior Health responded to our request for an interview by issuing the following statement from Dr. Ertel, VP Medicine and Quality:
“Interior Health would like to apologize for any confusion that has resulted from discussions we have had with a physician interested in one of our vacant positions in New Denver. Those discussions would be part of a physician hiring process for any position in any community, but we recognize, in this case, that they have created concerns for local residents. New Denver has done a tremendous job of highlighting what this community has to offer physicians, and it is great news that there is a physician expressing interest in coming to New Denver. I want to stress that Interior Health remains committed to bringing new physicians to New Denver to support sustainable local health care services.”
Karl Hardt, IH Communications, reported that Dr. Ertel had also spoken with Dr. Chuck Burkholder in New Denver, and IH had connected with New Denver Mayor Ann Bunka on this issue. In an interview, Colin Moss commented, “It’s easy to make an apology after the damage has been done. We hope the damage can be undone and Dr. Munro will decide to stay.”
At the rally, New Denver Mayor Ann Bunka thanked everyone for coming out. “We know how to fight for what we want,” she said. “The minister’s office and MLA Katrine Conroy’s office were very busy fielding phone calls and emails from community members all day, so you brought it to their attention pretty darn quick.” Mayor Bunka said she spoke to Karen Bloemink and Dr. Mike Ertel of IH, and to Ministry of Health staff, continued from page 1 and they all told her that there are no changes in the status of the health centre. She was also told that Dr. Ertel will be coming to New Denver to meet with Dr. Candace Munro.
Colin Moss also spoke at the rally. He explained that the local health committee has been meeting with IH monthly, “in good faith and we had hoped they were negotiating openly and honestly… Last night, we were led to believe that an Interior Health representative had conducted themselves unethically and unacceptably. We have had a day to settle down and IH has assured us that nothing has changed.” Moss told the crowd that the aim of the rally was to show Interior Health, the Ministry of Health, and MLA Katrine Conroy how quickly the community can mobilize. He reminded the crowd that in January, IH rescinded the decision to reduce ER hours at the health centre just 24 hours after IH, the MLA, and the ministry received a flood of emails and phone calls from area citizens opposing the proposed cuts.
Moss said in an interview with the Valley Voice‘s McMurray that the community has shown its commitment and dedication to the health centre once again. “We’ll take this to the provincial legislature if we have to. If IH is going to stand in our way, that has to be dealt with by the Ministry of Health.” He said the health committee understands that it’s a certain type of person who will want to live in New Denver. “There is more than one doctor out there who will love this location. We’re going to fill both those positions. We’re just getting started.”
The local health committee includes members of the Village councils of New Denver, Silverton, and Slocan, Area H Director Walter Popoff, Fire Chief Len Casley, Colin Moss, and a few other Chamber members. The committee works with the SCHC Auxiliary and the Friends and Family of Pavilion Residents Council.
About 15 per cent of British Columbians don’t have access to a regular family physician and a report published in December in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggests the problem will only get worse as a wave of physicians near retirement age.
According to billing data, the average doctor in B.C. retires at the age of 65, rural doctors retire two years earlier than that at the age of 63 and female physicians retire at 61.
Some B.C. communities are even going as far as to woo doctors with added bonuses.
In the past, Quesnel has offered a free car and rent to entice doctors to the city.
B.C. NDP Health Minister Adrian Dix said getting people access to primary care providers is one of his top priorities for 2018.
“Part of our effort is to develop urgent care centres but also to work with doctors and nurse practitioners and others is to ensure that people get the care they need in their community, that they don’t end up in hospital because they don’t receive the appropriate primary care and that is a huge priority for the health care system and one I’m focused on,” Dix said.
At this time, for New Denver, they are hopeful doctors will want to move to the region soon.
“The reality is, we cannot sustain 24/7 emergency department services and, if we continue as we are now, we risk losing our ability to provide ongoing primary care that will meet the majority of health care needs for local residents,” said Karen Bloemink, executive director IH – East, Hospitals and Communities Integrated Services.
“Our priority is to ensure residents can access a permanent physician who they see regularly; a physician who is familiar with their history and their ongoing health care needs.”
For more on rural healthcare, visit our Health page.