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Medical community still searching for answers

Directors listened attentively as doctors spoke. They told of grueling shifts in the emergency room followed by long, unfocused days in their clinics.

Directors listened attentively as doctors spoke. They told of grueling shifts in the emergency room followed by long, unfocused days in their clinics. A plethora of possible remedies pulsed through the corridors of last week's Sunshine Coast Regional Hospital District Board (SCRHDB) meeting, but the answer to how the Coast is going to find more doctors, soon, still runs elusive. "I'm really worried about the short-term. We have not been successful in recruiting young doctors, and this puts more pressure on the current staff. We had one doctor leave this month and another is retiring in June. The prospects are scary," said Dr. Jim McFarland, one of three physicians at the meeting. As representative doctors from the Sunshine Coast Medical Society, along with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) representatives and members of St. Mary's Hospital Foundation shared their thoughts and ideas, directors pushed for answers, trying to find some sort of solution. It quickly became evident that recruitment is going to take time. "This is a universal problem. It's multi-pronged and we will have to work together," said Dr. Jane Bishop. And that is exactly what the medical community is doing: coming together to form a committee with a mandate to attract doctors to the Coast. Among the committee's first projects is putting together a concierge that will go directly to medical schools to vie for graduating physicians.

Sustaining a positive tone, the meeting continued to generate ideas for long-term solutions. But an undertone of concern started to emerge as it became increasingly evident that nobody had an immediate solution. Adding to the mix of emotions was an announcement from a VCH representative that the provincial government had approved a $37 million expansion of St. Mary's Hospital. It was an announcement the medical community had been anxiously awaiting, but on this evening, at this particular meeting, such an announcement was met with reluctance. "What good is a $37 million expansion if there are no doctors to work in it?" asked SCRHDB chair Barry Janyk. Janyk was not alone, as the doctors also expressed their concerns, saying the expansion needs to be done in way that improves the entire hospital and that the push for new equipment needs to continue.

In the race to recruit, even aesthetics count. According to the doctors, graduating physicians have the luxury of being particular. As the number of graduating medical students shrinks, the competition gets tighter every year. Better equipment, a polished hospital and financial incentives will prove paramount. At this point, down six doctors, the only way to avoid a tumultuous spring, according to the doctors, is to immediately find more physicians. "We are shaking the trees trying to find staff. We know of a couple of foreign doctors working on upgrading, but we are still going to be short," McFarland said. In an attempt to alleviate some of the immediate pressure, Janyk spoke out, "We control the budget. What can we do to fix this - what do you need?" he asked, only to be hit with a blow when it was realized there is very little they can do. Under provincial law, hospital districts can spend only on capital expenses, which means they can put money towards new equipment, upgrades and expansions; stipends and incentive packages are not allowed. But the board is not backing down, motioning to gather all necessary information to go forward to the provincial government, requesting an amendment to the Hospital Board Act - a bold move, according to all parties present. Directors will discuss the details of how to proceed at the next district meeting, set for the end of March. It is still uncertain what will happen in the months ahead, but the situation, according to the doctors, will get worse. "We are seeing more serious medical problems. People are getting older and there are orphaned patients that don't have family doctors," McFarland. "The stress is carrying over into our family practices and patients are not getting the attention they need," added Dr. Robinson.

Until at least some of the six vacant positions are filled, the doctors say the emergency room will continue to be unpredictable, with waits pushing into the fourth hour, and medical clinics barely coping with the situation. According to the doctors, there will be no reprieve until an immediate, short-term answer is found.