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VCH updates Sunshine Coast on doctors, long-term care, hospital master plan

There are now 7,000 Sunshine Coasters – about one fifth of Coast residents – without primary care physicians, Sechelt Hospital is to start master planning next month and the future of Totem and Shorncliffe facilities are still under discussion, Coasters learned at a March 13 town hall.

A Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) town hall with health authority board members and senior leaders provided updates on Sunshine Coast projects and invited residents to inquire after local health topics the evening of March 13. Subject matter ran the gamut of health topics including patients without doctors, hospital master planning and the toxic drug crisis.

Master planning

Master planning for the next 30 years of Sechelt Hospital is set to start April 29, Darlene Mackinnon, vice president for coastal community, said.

The one-year project will review facilities and services, plan for population growth and demographic change and will focus on delivering culturally safe care in partnership with shíshálh Nation.

There will be engagement with partners and the public to identify priorities, which are to be considered alongside best practices in developing the clinical service plan, said Mackinnon. The project will start with an online public survey. 

Patients without doctors

About 7,000 people on the Coast do not have a primary care physician, said Mackinnon.

VCH has been working on expanding access to primary care through the Sunshine Coast Primary Care Network by adding more family physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses and allied health professionals (including pharmacy and social work). They are hiring for Primary Care Network positions, have hired a nurse practitioner and clinical counsellor and are finalizing a lease on the physical space in which the team will be housed.

Mackinnon also encouraged those looking for a family doctor to ensure they’re on the Sunshine Coast Health Connect registry. “It’s here that family doctors and nurse practitioners in the community…go when they’re available to accept new patients,” she said.

Totem and Shorncliffe

On the future of the Shorncliffe and Totem Lodge long-term care facilities now that they’re vacant, VCH is having technical assessments of both buildings, said Mackinnon.

While the Shorncliffe assessment is under way, the Totem assessment is done and indicates that there are “opportunities to invest in upgrades that can extend the life of the building.”

VCH is exploring service options for the building, including mental health and substance use care. 

Toxic drug crisis

On the toxic drug crisis, VCH has launched a low-barrier recovery support program locally, to be expanded in phases over the year, said Mackinnon. “The program is for adults who use substances and are interested in recovery. It’s free, it does not exclude people who are struggling with their substance use,” she said. It currently runs out of a community space in Sechelt and people can access the service through the mental health and substance use intake at the hospital, or through the opioid agonist treatment clinic. 

VCH has also been running once-a-month in-person opioid agonist treatment services in Pender Harbour, said Mackinnon. “We recognize there are transportation challenges when travelling to Sechelt’s clinic and this option, as well as the Lighthouse Virtual Substance Use Care Clinic, really try to make services more accessible,” she said. 

There was some stabilization in the number of overdose deaths between 2021 and 2022, and then an increase in 2023, said Dr. Moliehi Khaketla, medical health officer for the Sunshine Coast. “This is an existing threat for us and really close to home.” She highlighted the work of the overdose prevention site in Sechelt, saying that they monitor the number of people who use it. “I think without it, we would see a much higher number of deaths,” she said, adding that it’s part of a range of services addressing the crisis.


On staffing, Mackinnon shared that VCH is offering some incentives like temporary housing to help with recruitment. In 2022, VCH hired 107 staff for Sechelt and in 2023, they hired 105 staff across disciplines. Last week, the province also announced a program to provide a $20,000 incentive for nurses who serve rural and remote communities, said Mackinnon. “I think this will be critical to us in helping with recruitment.” 

In one response to one caller who said he would soon be without a doctor for the first time in his 70-plus years on the Coast, Wayne Balshin, vice president of people said that they’ve been investing in recruiting health care providers and have recruited for nine additional physicians in the past year.

VCH staff also talked about looking at expanding the urban urgent primary care centre model to a rural context.

Indigenous patient navigator

VCH hired an Indigenous patient navigator at the hospital, Mackinnon said.  “The focus of this role is to support us in providing more culturally safe care for our Indigenous patients,” she said. “[This role] supports patients in many ways, depending on the individual needs, from either linking them into community services or advocating for culturally appropriate care.”

Respiratory illnesses

On respiratory illnesses, medical health officer Khaketla, said influenza activity peaked in late December-early January and Influenza A has been the predominant type.

When it comes to COVID-19, they saw most of the activity in September-October, at which time the latest vaccines were distributed to communities. “As a result of the vaccine coverage, as well as natural immunity that we've now accumulated over the past few years, thankfully most of the cases for COVID-19 have generally been mild,” she said.

Khaketla reminded listeners to make sure their vaccinations are up to date, especially given the spread of measles. In the wake of a measles case in the VCH region (not on the Coast), the health authority had stepped up their vaccine availability on the Coast, offering more clinics in Gibsons and Sechelt and reaching some people who had not been immunized.

Those looking to get a vaccine can book online through the VCH Jane App or call the local health unit.

Long-term care beds

Asked about the need for more long-term care beds, VCH staff said they’re looking at opportunities for smaller facilities. They’re keeping their eyes out for large homes that they could convert into facilities for “an appropriate cohorted amount of people, as a strategy to get at some of these shortages of beds at a much faster rate than building long, large institutions.”

When one senior asked if she should be considering a move from Pender Harbour into Vancouver for the sake of health care, VCH board chair Dr. Penny Ballem was quick to say, “This is a great time to be retired on the Sunshine Coast, we’ve made a lot of investments up and down the Coast.”

Watch the full town hall below.