A Qualicum Beach doctor’s office will close on Nov. 30, adding to a growing concern about a lack of family physicians in the Parksville Qualicum Beach area.
Dr. Hennie Putter took over the practice of Dr. Penelope Barlett and Dr. Peter Haslett after their move to Halifax for family reasons. Putter has since announced the closure of the practice, stating personal health and family reasons.
Dr. Mark Morris, co-chair of the Central Island Division of Family Practice and Evelyn Clark, executive director, say that the gap in services is a significant challenge, and a complex one to solve. Currently, Morris says there are seven doctors including Putter that service Qualicum Beach, and 17 in Parksville including a locum, or covering doctor.
Although calculations vary as to exactly how many doctors are needed to fill the gap in PQB vary, Morris says that the area should be serviced by approximately 30 family physicians and/or nurse practitioners.
“When you look at the amount of calls we’re getting, when you look at the number of people who are out there saying they don’t have a family doctor – obviously we’re looking in the thousands,” said Morris.
Morris, who works at the Parksville Medical Clinic, says they’ve been successful in recruiting some new doctors, but that mostly the new recruits simply serve to fill the gaps left by retiring practitioners.
The doctor shortage isn’t new or unique to the PQB area, although there are some factors that make recruitment and retention in the area more difficult. Morris and Clark say they’re working on solutions and that they hope to be able to make a positive announcement in early 2020.
“We’re having conversations with the Ministry of Health currently, both in partnership with Island Health and with our family physicians and NPs. So we’re not doing this on our own, we’re doing this as a collective committee,” said Clark.
Although the Central Island Division of Family Practice has an employee in charge of active recruitment, there are several issues they’ve identified that are making the PQB area less-than-desirable for new doctors. Part of it is structural; in Qualicum Beach, many existing practices are small offices. Morris says that many new physicians are looking for larger offices with more support to deal with the business end of the medical practice.
“Even if we were to attract six physicians, ‘where would we put them?’ is the question of the day. And so part of the work is us talking to the Ministry of Health through the primary care network to negotiate maybe trying to find clinic space, or modernize some clinic space that we could create, so that we could get family practitioners in to help us out,” said Clark.
She also cited the difficulty of care for an area that has one of Canada’s oldest populations.
“That’s a specific type of skill set that isn’t necessarily the interest of a lot of physicians, or all physicians for sure. There has to be the ability for that person to engage in that type of care,” said Clark.
Clark says that as more people move here for their retirement, many aren’t thinking of finding a doctor before they arrive, and often end up surprised that there is a lack of service in the area once they’ve settled.
Clark stressed the issue is a difficult problem to tackle, with any solutions needing to be a multi-faceted approach.
“This is a big challenge, and it’s a complicated environment to move into. It isn’t as simple as unlocking a door and starting a practice. And I think that people are impatient and concerned about getting a family physician. But from our point of view, there’s so much more to it than just putting your shingle out. We’re doing the best we can in a really complicated environment. And hopefully, we’ll have some good news fairly soon,” she said.
For now, there aren’t many options for people looking to become attached to a primary care provider.
Morris says that many people end up going to Nanaimo or Courtenay for service, where there are often more doctors available. That’s a solution that Putter has offered to his patients.
Former Premier of Newfoundland Brian Peckford, who currently lives in Parksville, wrote a letter to Minister of Health Adrian Dix regarding concerns about the lack of family physicians.
Peckford claims in the letter that the lack of doctors contravenes accessibility requirements in the Canada Health Act, in light of the fact that people are driving more than 70 kilometres from Parksville to Courtenay to obtain services.
A wait list called a Patient Attachment Mechanism (PAM) is available for residents in Parksville Qualicum Beach and surrounding areas. Those in need can head to https://surveys.divisionsbc.ca/pam.aspx to register.
Clark says approximately 500 people per year are taken off the list, but recommends that those in need find a doctor in another region to cover their short-term needs.