Physician shortage tackled in the Tri-Cities
It took more than a year for Elwin Mowry to find a family physician after his doctor retired and the Coquitlam man has one word for anyone in the same boat: persevere.
Perseverance is what Mowry said it took to find a Port Coquitlam MD willing to take himself and his family on.
“It got to be crazy,” said the retired Coquitlam banker, recalling his years of seeing a string of doctors for issues, such as a blood clot and his wife’s fibromyalgia, until they finally landed a family physician last year.
It’s the same story faced by many people in the Tri-Cities, where physicians willing to take on new patients are scarce.
The problem isn’t confined to Port Coquitlam, Port Moody and Coquitlam. All over B.C., there are more people who need family physicians than there are doctors willing to take them on as patients. But this region is facing the double whammy of being one of the fastest-aging at the same time many doctors who practice here are also getting older and approaching retirement.
AGING POPULATION, RETIRING GPS
Ten per cent of Tri-City residents are already over 65, according to Fraser Health statistics, and that number is slated to grow at one of the fastest rates in the region. At the same time, more than a dozen local doctors are expected to retire in the next year or two, and possibly as many as two dozen within the next five to nine years.
Fortunately, the trend hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Ministry of Health, Fraser Health and the BC Medical Association, resulting in two initiatives that could make a difference.
The first is a provincial program called A GP For Me, which will put the Tri-Cities’ physician shortage under the microscope in the coming months. The second is the establishment of a community partnership between Fraser Health and the cities to foster collaboration on community health concerns.
Kathleen Ross, a Coquitlam doctor and co-lead of the Fraser Northwest Division of Family Practice, said A GP For Me will look at solutions that will make it easier for people to get primary care. More work is needed to identify challenges and opportunities, Dr. Ross said, but already the local division of family practice has had some successes, with five new family doctors moving into the area in the last seven months and another three looking to relocate here.
“We are certainly working hard to try and attract new family physicians,” Ross said.
HEALTH: THE BIGGER PICTURE
Another program underway is the development of a Tri-Cities community partnership in which Fraser Health works with city governments, School District 43, police and the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce to identify issues, then come up with solutions to improve people’s health.
Dr. Lawrence Loh, medical health officer for the Tri-Cities and Burnaby, said the group has yet to establish its terms of reference but will look at ways to make it easier for people to make healthier choices.
Looking more closely at the physician shortage may also be an issue that is tackled, Loh said, but the goal is to keep people healthy so they don’t need to see a doctor as often.
“The most important message is that we… at Fraser Health are starting to realize that health isn’t something that happens in the doctor’s office. We can all have influence in health,” Loh said.
And Loh and Ross say bringing more family doctors to the area, though important, isn’t the only solution to improving people’s well-being.
“I believe that retention and recruitment within our area is important,” Dr. Ross said. “However, we also recognize from a division point of view that’s not the only way to improve the connection between the community and family physicians.”
Other solutions are needed, Ross said, because relying strictly on personnel isn’t enough to keep up with demand. Even now, Tri-City physicians would each need to take 308 more patients — in addition to the 1,200 they already serve on average — just to keep up.
“As a full-service family doctor, I can tell you that’s impossible,” Ross said.
Looked at another way, the Tri-Cities would need 50 more family doctors to meet current need. And as the population ages — and taking docs’ retirements into consideration — the number would increase to 80.
“Optimizing of primary care physicians is actually crucially important,” Ross said, as is recruiting other health professionals, such as nurse practitioners, to deliver primary care.
A GP for Me has already been piloted in three other regions and Ross said the Fraser Northwest Division of Family Practice is looking closely at the scope of the problem and coming up with solutions.
ISSUE AT "CRISIS" STAGE
For two local city councillors, the initiatives couldn’t come at a better time.
Glen Pollock of Port Coquitlam and Rick Glumac of Port Moody are members of the Tri-Cities Municipal Advisory Board and say their cities are interested in collaborating with Fraser Health to deal with the problem.
Pollock said the shortage of family physicians in the region is a crisis and something he hears about frequently. “I tell people it’s a provincial concern but the fact of the matter is, we are the closest to the people.”
Glumac, meanwhile, said he’s optimistic the partnership with Fraser Health will help bring doctors to the Tri-Cities because more information will be shared and everyone will be on the same page.
“If [doctors] want to go to an area and move their family, they’ll want to ask questions about that area. Fraser Health, if they have good communication with municipalities, they can provide that information accurately and encourage GPs to come here.”