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Thousands of Sunshine Coast residents in search of a family doctor

New doctors have become ‘a scarce resource’: Sunshine Coast Division of Family Practice
The Sechelt Hospital has received an increase in patients due to limited medical resources

With medical centres closing and doctors moving away from the Coast, finding a family doctor or a general practitioner has become a confusing, strenuous experience for residents. 

Approximately 5,000 residents on the Sunshine Coast are without a regular doctor – and swift solutions aren’t in sight, Sunshine Coast Division of Family Practice representatives told Coast Reporter this week.  

Ads in the June edition of Harbour Spiel stated that the Sunshine Coast had lost 20 per cent of its emergency physicians over the last six months, the same issue announced that Dr. Colin Sutton will be retiring from the Pender Harbour Health Center in November this year. 

Not long after, Sechelt Medical Clinic announced that they are closing at the end of 2023 and merging with Cowrie Medical Clinic. 

The state of the Coast

Citing Ministry of Health data, Michael Aeberhardt, executive director of Sunshine Coast Division of Family Practice, said, “There is somewhere in the vicinity of 5,000 patients on the Sunshine Coast who are without a physician who are not attached to longitudinal care.”

Dr. Rob Lehman, chair of Sunshine Coast Division of Family Practice explained that this number has steadily grown over the years as physicians retire or move away from the Coast without much influx of new doctors coming in.

The entire province is facing a shortage of medical professionals, according to Aeberhardt, the main issue is overall shortage of available practitioners. 

Lehman said the attachment number of people without a primary care provider is similar to the rest of the province, and that the recruitment of new doctors is “competing for a scarce resource.”

Aeberhardt and Lehman confirmed that there are no walk-clinics available on the Sunshine Coast. Gibsons Medical Clinic provided walk-in appointments on Saturday mornings for years before they had to stop the service.

“That's another symptom of our primary care providers being over capacity in all the jobs that they do in the community, which is much more than just office practice,” said Lehman. 

Healthcare practitioners on the Coast must be flexible, Aeberhardt explained. Fewer doctors means more shared responsibility, “When you get into smaller communities such as the Sunshine Coast, physicians provide both acute care services and clinic services, so they provide all of the care, not just a portion of what you see in the larger centres.”

What do people without doctors do? 

Lehman said “there’s not a perfect answer” as for what residents in immediate need should do right now.

“Unfortunately, what the emergency department of the hospital has to try to accommodate, is asking people to find that balance between how [much of an] emergency the situation is that they need to come to the hospital for,” said Lehman. “But in the end, they need care and we need to try to provide that care locally.”

What is being done to help the Coast?

In an email statement from the Ministry of Health, Adrian Dix, minister of health said, “In September 2022, we announced B.C.’s Health Human Resource (HHR) Strategy that works to optimize the health care system and improve workplace recruitment and retention.”

Dix explained that the HHR Strategy includes 70 key actions to retain, recruit, and train health-care workers across the province, while redesigning the health-care system to foster workplace satisfaction and innovation.

The Ministry of Health highlighted that they have partnered with doctors of B.C to develop a new Longitudinal Family Practice Model to properly compensate physicians. 

In a follow up email to Coast Reporter, Vancouver Coastal Health stated, “VCH is working with the Division of Family Practice, the shíshálh Nation, and the Ministry of Health to establish a Primary Care Network (PCN) within the region.” 

They included that VCH is also expanding community services in the region to better meet client needs where they’re at, including a new care model designed to provide intensive case management to our community clients with complex medical needs.

These plans show that there is a solution in the works further down the line but no timeline is given. In the meantime, residents and practitioners on the Sunshine Coast are in an uncomfortable situation.

“Nobody wants to see people not have that access to medical care. And physicians are feeling that acutely as well,” said Lehman. 

Jordan Copp is the Coast Reporter’s civic and Indigenous affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.