Residents of Fort Smith will experience a shortage of physicians from August 28 to September 7, but the Health and Social Services Authority maintains that most services will continue to operate as usual.
“We can ensure that we have the (nurse) practitioners on site to deal with folks that come through the door, and then for anything that requires the assistance of a physician, we have physicians available via telephone to support our nurses or our nurse practitioners,” said Rob Tordiff, CEO of the Fort Smith Health Centre.
Although the lack of doctors may impact some services, specialist clinics at the health centre will not be affected. The facility will remain open during its regular hours and emergency services will continue to operate on a 24-hour basis.
“Services are still here, we can still provide the same quality of service with the practitioners that we have, but things will be a little different,” said Tordiff. “One major issue is that we can’t admit to a facility right now. We need a physician to admit.”
But in terms of any serious accidents or illnesses, Tordiff said procedure should remain relatively the same, with patients being stabilized here and sent by medivac to Stanton Hospital in Yellowknife.
“There’s not a big difference in terms of what we have normally and where we are right now, because we do have that remote physician coverage and we do have a staff that have some advanced skills,” he said.
For Tordiff, such periodic physician vacancies are common in the North.
“There’s ebbs and flows, times of years where it’s difficult to recruit locum physicians, with August being one of them,” he said.
The last physician in Fort Smith with a permanent, salaried position left in 2008. Despite active recruitment with a highly competitive NWT physicians’ contract and all of its incentives, Tordiff said there is a general shortage of physicians globally, especially those desiring to go into rural practice.
“It’s a big challenge to find physicians that are prepared to set down roots in one community and work in that environment,” he said. “I can’t speak for doctors but I do know that there is some hesitancy to go into a smaller environment where you don’t have the collegial support, where there aren’t other physicians to bounce ideas off of and consult on various aspects of a client’s care that they may wish to speak to a colleague about. And there’s the call outs. We find that in small communities there’s a huge demand on their time, so they can burn out really quickly.”
To make up for absences, the health centre hires locum tenants on short contracts. Some physicians come from Hay River simply for the weekend; others stay for three months. But Tordiff said building up a locum pool to fill absences like the current one has been difficult.
“As physicians retire, they go into permanent practice elsewhere and they fall off the roster,” he said. “And that’s kind of where we find ourselves right now. We’ve had physicians who are retiring, who we’ve grown accustomed to having here on a regular basis, or other physicians who’ve taken up practice on a regular basis elsewhere, so they’re no longer available. That seems to be hitting us all at once.”