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Doctor recruitment top concern for residents

Cold Lake residents want to know what’s being done to recruit doctors to the region. The Lakeland Communities Health Advisory Council (HAC) invited the public to their Wednesday, May 8 meeting to provide feedback on healthcare in the community.
HAC – Cindy
Cindy Harmata, senior operating officer for AHS for the north zone, explained HAC’s recruitment efforts.

Cold Lake residents want to know what’s being done to recruit doctors to the region.

The Lakeland Communities Health Advisory Council (HAC) invited the public to their Wednesday, May 8 meeting to provide feedback on healthcare in the community.

The largest concern shared by those who attended was doctor recruitment.

Currently, there are three open positions in Cold Lake: two family medicine with anesthesia, and a family medicine with low risk obstetrics.

“We do have another family doctor with enhanced surgical skills and C-section ability starting June 3,” noted Gail Hachey, physician resource planner with Alberta Health Services (AHS), adding they also had two doctors recently start in the area, with another on the way.

“The recruitment of new doctors into Cold Lake is at a dramatic increase right now,” expressed Cold Lake Mayor Craig Copeland. “What will be fascinating from our perspective in our community, is on the list… the people that have just arrived to open up their shingle in Cold Lake, how quickly their patient loads will be snapped up, because it’s the unattached patients.”

He wondered if once they have filled all of the positions, if the percentage of residents without a registered family doctor will drop.

Cindy Harmata, senior operating officer for AHS for the north zone said, “Absolutely do we hope that this influx of physicians will start to attach patients, that’s a fundamental drive that we have… but we will always have some patients that will remain unattached, partly due to perhaps the choices they make or the lifestyle choices that may still exist.”

Unattached patients is one of the goals of the Primary Care Network, she added, because once residents have a family doctor they can call upon, the number of people visiting the emergency room will decrease.

“When we’re looking at our emergency services, we’re looking at how we can improve that attachment, because then perhaps we can start to reduce the volume of patients who are accessing emergency because that’s the only way they can get in.”

Copeland noted it can take some patients weeks to get an appointment with their doctor, where in some cities it’s a matter of days.

This was another soft spot for residents at the meeting.

“We’ve been working on that too, but it’s hard to say to a very stretched physician population ‘thou shall do more,’ because they’re already doing the very best they can,” expressed Harmata.

According to Harmata, there have been some “unexpected vacancies,” after one physician decreased their workload due to illness, one passed away, and another retired.

”That absolutely created a hole, but as we keep building, it’s going to improve.”

When asked about the difference between the Cold Lake hospital and the Bonnyville hospital, Harmata said they really offer similar services, but in their own ways.

While the Cold Lake Healthcare Centre is managed by Alberta Health Services, the Bonnyville facility is under the Covenant Health umbrella.

“In actuality, Covenant Health has a contract with Alberta Health Services. We provide the funding and some of the support to a Covenant Health site,” described Harmata. “Covenant does operate themselves slightly different from Alberta Health Services. They have made some choices around how they provide services that may look different than how we provide services.”

She continued, “Covenant is also a faith-based organization, so that influences a lot of their decisions as well.”

Another difference between Bonnyville and Cold Lake residents noted, was the ability to have part-time doctors.

Harmata explained, “In terms of physicians, they’re private practitioners as a whole, they make decisions on how they operate their business. They’re funded through Alberta Health, but in terms of how they operate, that’s really their decision. They may have a clinic model where they have a mix of full-time and part-time, because that meets their needs a little bit better, but if they work in an AHS site, we require them to provide on-call... It may be more advantageous to have a full-time than to have individuals that are part-time. All over our north zone we have a mix of full and part-time, it’s all dependent on that physician community in terms of how they determine the best model for their particular clinic or service.”

Cathy Garon, site manager for the Cold Lake Healthcare Centre, stressed the relationship between the city and the Bonyville hospital is strong.

Regardless of what some may believe, she said, they often work together in order to offer the best quality of service to their communities.

“There’s this misconception out there that Cold Lake and Bonnyville don’t get along, and that’s just not true. We have a great relationship with Bonnyville, and they love us and we love them. Their doctors and nurses show up everyday and work just as hard as we do to do the right thing,” she explained. “We talk to each other almost every day... In the medical world, we don’t have a lot of rivalry. There is no rivalry.”

When it came to their recruiting efforts, Garon said they do everything they can to entice doctors to come to the area.

From inviting them to the community and offering financial assistance, to giving them a tour of the city and a meeting with key partners.

“We’ve been working on this for a long, long time, but it’s competitive. We get people here, we wine and dine them… and we do everything, we throw everything at them, and they still choose (elsewhere),” Garon emphasized.

She continued, “Cold Lake is very competitive in terms of their recruitment package, between the city and Hearts for Healthcare, they have about a $70,000 recruitment package... We help them with housing, cars, and whatever else they need to get going... It’s just hard to recruit to rural anywhere.”

That includes Canadian doctors.

“When they grow up in a city setting and go to school (somewhere like) the University of Alberta… everything is at their fingertips, so they’re afraid when they first graduate. They’re actually nervous about leaving all of that security and going out to a small town where they don’t call the trauma team, they’re the trauma team and they have to be able to know what to do,” Garon outlined.

That’s why the doctors who do come here are the one’s that are looking for “the Canadian dream.”

“They want to have it all, they want a great job in a great community, with great patients,” added Garon.

The struggle to recruit isn’t necessarily a reflection on what the community has to offer, noted Garon, who said the doctors that are here thrive because they get to be a part of it all, not just their practice.

“In the city, if you graduate, you hang up your shingle and open your store and you spend your whole career trying to attract enough patients to pay your bills. That’s what you do, is work in your clinic. You’re lucky if you get privileges. Here, you get to work in the emergency department, the operating room, catch babies, work in the Primary Care Network, go out to the indigenous communities, they get to do it all. They get to keep all of their skills,” she emphasized.

Bonnyville currently has 27 doctors, with four open positions while Cold Lake has 21 physicians and are looking at recruiting three.

“There’s always that belief that Bonnyville has 27 doctors, they don’t really. If you count apples to apples, they have probably roughly the same that we have in terms of full-time people, and then we have our guys that work full-time plus,” stressed Garon, adding it can also be easier for the Bonnyville hospital to recruit because they’re managed by Covenant Health.

“One of the big differences you brought up with Covenant, is it’s a faith-based organization. There’s very few hospitals in Covenant compared to AHS. If you want to be in a faith-based hospital and you’re looking for a job, there are only 10 hospitals to choose from,” she noted. “That’s part of the reason why it’s easier for them to recruit, which is awesome.”

Garon added, “The physicians that work here love this town and love this community, and they don’t want to leave.”3