Province's doctor shortage reaching crisis proportions

Practices ‘full to the gills’ as 200,000 B.C. residents without GP

Ian Austin and Stuart Hunter, The Province

Up to 200,000 British Columbians don’t have regular access to a family doctor, the president of the B.C. Medical Association said yesterday.

Dr. Geoff Appleton, a family physician in Terrace, said doctor shortages have become a way of life in B.C.

“It is happening all the time,” said Appleton, commenting on a National Physician Survey released yesterday.

“An estimated 200,000 cannot access their own family physician on a regular basis.

“We’re all full to the gills. You end up shortchanging the patients you’ve got. It’s feeling that you are not servicing patients well and you can’t see them in a timely fashion.”

The survey indicates things will get worse before they get better — 4,000 Canadian doctors plan to quit in the next two years alone.

The crisis has hit home in Princeton, where a community of 5,000 with a hospital and the accident-prone Hope-Princeton highway may be left with just one doctor.

“I’ve had my same doctor for 25 years, and I have to wait two to three weeks to see him unless I’m really sick,” said frustrated Princeton Mayor Randy McLean, who hopes a South African doctor will arrive this summer to ease the crisis.

“We usually have anywhere from four to six doctors,” he said. “Any doctor who transferred here would be full immediately.”

Dr. John Adams, the one doctor who has vowed to stay on, was — predictably — too busy to talk to The Province yesterday.

Recently, he told the Similkameen News Leader: “Over the last few months I have had many concerned citizens come to the office and ask what my view is on the current medical crisis in our community. We are isolated from major health facilities and live in the midst of some of B.C.’s most dangerous highways.”

He issued a warning of sorts: “I should, however, state that in this, my 68th year, the demands of 24-hour on-call coverage take their toll and cannot be tolerated without

full emergency room coverage. The Interior Health Authority must act quickly to recruit physicians and I will work closely with IHA and all parties in this regard.”

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, B.C. has 111 family doctors per 100,000 population, and 88 specialists per 100,000 population. The Canadian average is 98 doctors and 92 specialists.

Doctors responding to the survey found a number of problems caring for their patients.

Increasing complexity of patient caseloads was cited by 80 per cent, management of patients with chronic diseases and conditions was cited by 73 per cent, and increasing patient expectations was noted by 70 per cent.

One of the undeniable trends cited by doctors in all jurisdictions was the aging population — 80 per cent of specialists and 69 per cent of all doctors cited shifting demographics as a barrier to giving patients proper care.

Appleton said the looming retirement of so many doctors poses a difficult problem.

“We have doubled the number of medical school places, and there are apparently more to come,” said Appleton.

“So it is moving in the right direction, but whether it will be fast enough — I doubt that.”

Mayor McLean feels the government should allow more foreign doctors into the country and pay bonuses to attract doctors to smaller centres.

“You don’t get people to work for the same money in Fort McMurray as in Penticton,” he said. “These doctors are coming out of school with $150,000 in debts, and a rural hospital just doesn’t make the grade.”
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