Residents are questioning the wisdom behind a re-zoning proposal that would allow family physicians to operate their businesses in Qualicum Commons.
Council held a public hearing Monday night on a zoning change to add health practitioners to the accepted uses under the institutional zoning of the former downtown elementary school.
Anna Grieve, a long time nurse practitioner speaking as a concerned resident, said it was awkward for her to speak against a possible health-care facility, but said she’s just against it being in The Commons, which she called an inappropriate location.
“What really concerns me is when we have council approaching health care… perhaps looking at reduced rents and thinking that that draws physicians,” she said, adding that healthy communities is what really draws doctors. She questioned whether a clinic would have labs, ultra sound, X-rays, “or are we going to give false expectations that patients will be looked after here, yet they still have to travel to Nanaimo to get X-rays or whatever — does that really benefit the community?”
Grieve pointed to empty commercial space in town and suggested doctors look at other models, adding that with grandchildren attending dance classes in the Commons she’s not sure they should be mixing health care with family community services.
Grieve finished by highlighting her point that she doesn’t think cheap rent would draw young doctors as much as a vibrant community.
Former councillor Dave Willie said he had concerns about the proposal, suggesting the old building is inappropriate, “but more importantly, as a resident I’m concerned about the million-dollar investment we made in the school bus depot,” suggesting the community is overdue for a discussion about that property next door, a discussion he said should also include The Commons. Willie said there is surplus commercial space in town and that opening The Commons to doctors’ offices would only increase that problem.
Dr. Mark Morris, a director with the Oceanside Divisions of Family Practice (ODFP), which represents family physicians, addressed some of the concerns.
“This potential community clinic that we’re looking at is not meant to replace the Oceanside Health Centre,” said Morris. “It’s not meant to be a mental health and substance abuse clinic — we’re really looking at helping address a critical shortage in physicians in our Oceanside area.”
“This discussion has not come about lightly,” Morris continued. “We’ve spent the last two years looking at attachment (family) physician shortage and it really goes beyond this location and spots available for physicians,” he said, adding that even if all the empty clinic space in the region was full, “we’d still be short physicians.”
He said that doctors today prefer to work in a “turn-key” clinic, rather than running their own businesses and said, “one of the best (doctor shortage) solutions is having a community-driven clinic.”
He said they estimate there are 4,500 people in the region without a family doctor.
Tom Davies of the Federation of Oceanside Residents Associations, said he was working closely with the ODFP. He said family doctors have an average of 1,800 to 2,500 patients in the area, rather than the ideal 1,200 to 1,500.
Davies said there is a “perfect storm” doctor shortage North America-wide and it’s up to each community to be smart and think outside the box to make sure they are the ones to get the limited doctors.
Meghann Doyle said as a struggling artist, The Commons is the only place in town she can afford to teach classes and she has already had trouble booking space because The Commons is so well used.
“This building is so busy that I had to cancel half of my programming for spring break,” said Doyle. “I’ll be earning half of what I should this month because there is not space for me to run my programming in this community.”
She agreed with Grieve that, “Support for non-health-related community programming is very important to all of our health,” suggesting a building has little to do with attracting doctors.
“A young doctor with a young family needs a family-oriented community,” said Doyle. “If you want him or her to stay here with their family, they have to have a reason to come here and it has to be more than just a paycheque and a fancy office.”
Doyle said The Commons is already child-friendly with child-sized bathroom facilities and is more appropriate for educational and family-related services than another business.
As several speakers did, Doyle also pointed to the “brand new (Oceanside Health Centre) seven miles away, do we really need another one right now?”
Other speakers Monday expressed frustration with the appearance that council was “trying to fly things under the radar” and questioned how much tax revenue doctors offices would generate in an institutional building with non-profit groups, and, as realtor Ian Lindsay put it: “a patchwork, quick-fix approach” to a large ongoing issue that would “set a bad precedent.”
At the end of the public hearing council agreed they would like further discussion, which they are not allowed to do (under provincial law) after a public hearing, so they unanimously took the unusual move of reverting back a step to second reading, meaning they can gather more information and hold a second public hearing. No dates were set.