When a family doctor retires, the odds of finding another in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows are not good.
“The public doesn’t grasp what’s going on until their doctor retires,” said Coun. Bob Masse, who was at a Ridge Meadows Division of Family Practice meeting last week when the issue was discussed.
Maple Ridge has struggled with a doctor shortage for years, leaving families without a regular physician. They even have difficulty seeing a doctor at a walk-in clinic as those offices cut hours because of physician shortages.
And even though Maple Ridge is getting four new doctors in the next few months, they’ll be replacing two who are retiring and another who’s leaving the country.
He has been studying the issue and wants to present a resolution to Maple Ridge council to eventually forward to the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
He’s got a few ideas for fixes that could help right away. Restoring government funding to the Division of Family Practice so it can resume its GP for Me program is one of them.
That program ran for three years, ending in 2017, and brought 17 new doctors to Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows at a total program cost of $225,000.
Another idea Masse settled on after talking to a local doctor was setting up an urgent care clinic run by Fraser Health that would deal with pressing medical cases other than outright emergencies.
The expedited process that allowed international medical graduates from other countries to partner with Canadian doctors, as part of their qualification process, also should be restored.
“It appears … just a shortage of funding to do it. That’s just really unacceptable,” Masse said.
Dr. Ursula Luitingh, at Golden Ears Family Practice, said doctors know patients are frustrated, but pointed out it’s a provincewide problem.
She added the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. has difficult requirements of foreign doctors trying to immigrate here and that those requirements should be reviewed.
“Some of these IMGs have to work with a physician and then wait for a residency program and there aren’t any residency programs. It’s so difficult to get. We know that so many people from outside of the country want to come, but they can’t find residency programs if that’s what the college requires.”
As well, many medical graduates aren’t much interested in family practice, wages being one of the reasons.
“We need the government structure to kind of reset their requirements and it has to come from the top down,” Luitingh said.
So many doctors want to come here, she added, but you can’t get them into the country.
It’s also anticipated that for every doctor who retires, two new ones will be required to take his or her place.
“It’s a really serious problem,” Luitingh said.
Masse said he’s regularly asked by patients in his chiropractic practice if he can recommend a family doctor and that there are about 1,000 immigrant doctors in Canada who can’t become qualified to practise. He wants to find out why and address that in his resolution.
Competition is one reason why it’s hard to draw doctors to B.C. Alberta, which pays more and has cheaper housing, is drawing doctors, Masse said.
He added that doctors in B.C. earn $31 for each regular patient visit. In Alberta, he said it’s almost double that.
Treena Innes, executive-director with the division of family practice, said it is thinking of a petition to get the public involved and press the case for more doctors.
What complicates efforts is there’s no one agency that’s taking on the task, Innes added.
Doctors can go anywhere, she added. And with house prices continuing to climb, this area is less attractive to physicians in other parts of the world.
Innes said one doctor from the United Kingdom had been considering coming here, but in the last year house prices jumped $100,000.
Nevertheless, three of the four new doctors who are arriving here in the next six months are from the U.K. That’s been about a three-year process, Innes pointed out.
One of those four will be here in a training capacity, though.
Innes said the community is currently short 23 general practitioners.
The division’s website offers a brief summary of the area to doctors who are thinking of moving here. It notes that while the poverty rate is below the B.C. average, 25 per cent of children and 23 per cent of senior women live in poverty.
It adds that homelessness is growing in the area and is now the third-highest in the Fraser Health region.
“Homelessness brings with it increasing cases of addiction and mental illness,” said the division.
“Life expectancy in Ridge-Meadows is slightly lower than the rest of the Fraser Health Authority area and B.C. There is a higher incidence of cancer, circulatory, respiratory, and digestive diseases, as well as depression, diabetes, dementia, asthma, arthritis, mental illness, and heart conditions.”
Dr. Lakshmi Challa, at the Pitt Meadows Medical Clinic, could use another three physicians in his office.
He said the doctor shortage can be eased in two ways – by adding more money to increase the number of hospital residency positions for local medical grads and by the College of Physicians and Surgeons simplifying the qualifying process for doctors from the U.K., the U.S., Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
“I’m from England myself, so I know how many hurdles we have to go through. These are well-trained doctors who are practising there. Then when they come to Canada, they have to write the exams, a lot of hoops they have to go through.”
Doctors from other than those five countries have to enter a three-year residency program in a local hospital, but again, there are few spaces.
“There are a lot of foreign-trained doctors who are running taxis,” Challa said.
Luitingh noted that the announcement by the College of Physicians and Surgeons to suspend its registry of available physicians makes it look like the college is passing the buck of recruitment to the clinics themselves.