Mayors tackle health care ‘crisis’

Lyonel Doherty, Times Chronicle

With the recent loss of two doctors in the area, Oliver and Osoyoos mayors face an uphill battle in the ongoing health care “crisis.”

Oliver Mayor Martin Johansen recently returned from a face-to-face meeting with B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, accompanied by MLA Roly Russell and Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff.

“With the recent loss of our doctors, I just thought, man, this is not going well. I think we’re in a crisis here. I’m concerned about the collapse of our health care system,” Johansen said.

So, the mayor wanted to have a heart-to-heart discussion with Dix, while leaving politics at the door.

He noted that Oliver and Osoyoos are in a crisis as a number of physicians retire, leaving the burden on a shrinking team of doctors, particularly in the emergency room department at SOGH. Fortunately, the hospital ER hasn’t seen any closures in quite a while, Johansen said.

The mayor stated the real challenge is recruiting doctors to take on longitudinal practice. He added that patient care needs are becoming more complex as the population ages, and expenses are rising due to increasing rents and supply costs.

Johansen said the lack of locum physicians means that many family doctors do not get a vacation and, quite frankly, end up burning out.

The mayor acknowledged there is no easy fix to solve this problem, and it takes more than just throwing money at it. But he received a commitment from Dix to visit Oliver this summer to discuss solutions.

“To me, the meeting was a breakthrough, it’s the breakthrough I’ve been looking for. I really felt we got to a point where there was consensus to move forward,” Johansen said.

McKortoff said Osoyoos has been trying to find solutions to doctor shortages and primary care clinics for years, and COVID certainly didn’t help because it slowed everything down.

“The meeting with Minister Dix was a positive step in trying to show our willingness to work together with our health care partners to look for possible solutions.” 

McKortoff said she is looking forward to more meetings with the minister and sharing ideas on how to address the problem.

In the meantime, Johansen is still getting calls from people who are struggling since they lost their family doctor. He noted that some of these people are dealing with serious diseases and life-threatening illnesses. He estimated there are nearly 3,000 people in Oliver and Osoyoos without a family doctor right now.

“Suddenly you get a letter in the mail saying you don’t have a doctor anymore (and nobody else is taking new patients).”

Johansen said when doctors come to rural communities like Oliver they don’t stay very long once they realize the workload and see that relief isn’t close at hand.

“Working 60, 70, 80 hours a week isn’t realistic for anybody . . . it’s overwhelming the number of hours they put in.”

But team-based health care is one solution that Johansen believes could work. He envisions a primary care clinic where doctors work together to share patients and get relief where necessary.

(File photo)

In the meantime, Oliver needs access to a locum program to provide relief for existing doctors, Johansen pointed out.

Boundary-Similkameen MLA Russell said he has heard from many constituents lamenting about their health care challenges.

Although the solution in the South Okanagan is different than what’s needed in other areas, the “enormous concern” is the same across the riding, he pointed out.

Russell said a big part of reaching a solution is bringing everyone to the table, adding it’s “critical” to sit down and listen to the experts.

The MLA said the fact is doctors need a break; they need a model that allows them to do their work with some time off.

“They don’t want to be seeing patients all day and staying up all night working the books.”

Russell said the most consistent theme he is hearing from doctors and nurses is the desire to establish a team-based care model. He sees great benefit in a clinic that has all the care components under one roof, including mental health.

On Monday, Dix offered new resident health care graduates incentives such as lucrative contracts and signing bonuses if they work as family doctors in BC.

Tracy St. Claire, executive director of the South Okanagan Similkameen Division of Family Practice, confirmed they are witnessing a shortage of family doctors across the province, and unfortunately the South Okanagan isn’t immune to that trend.

“We are working hard to recruit doctors and have a track record of working together with our partners to come up with creative solutions,” St. Claire said.

 She noted the Division has embraced team-based care, supported doctors to be able to focus more on medicine and less on administration, and welcomed the addition of a number of allied health professionals to the area. 

“These innovations are part of the solution but are clearly not enough.”

St. Claire said local doctors are committed to continue to work collaboratively to find local solutions to meet the primary care needs in the region.

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