Fort St. John surgeon’s exit raises concerns over wait times

The recent departure of a general surgeon at the Fort St. John Hospital could essentially double wait times for some people on the waiting list for certain surgeries, according to Northern Health’s vice-president of medicine, Ronald Chapman.

Last Friday, Dr. Jan Klompje, a general surgeon at the hospital, left for what Chapman called “family reasons.”

“We’re very sad to see him leave, because he was a great asset to the community,” he added.

Chapman said that before Klompje’s departure, about 150 people were on the waiting list to see him. Now, that list has gone up to about 300.

Klompje announced his departure six months ago, and while a variety of people were approached about the position, none of them committed to working here, according to Chapman.

The VP went on to say that the hospital still has a variety of other specialized surgeons, which will continue to do their operations even without Klompje. These specialists come in for visits on certain days. Northern Health is also looking at locums, or doctors who come in sporadically, to help fill the gaps.

General surgeons perform a variety of operations, including surgeries related to the stomach and ones that help treat cancer. Chapman said that in his five years working for Northern Health, the number of general surgeons has been “fairly stable.”

Chapman said that even though the waiting list may be longer for certain procedures, Northern Health has shorter wait times than other health districts.

According to the provincial Ministry of Health website, this is true for at least one operation – bowel resection, or removal of bowels – that general surgeons are called to do.

For bowel resections, from November 2013 through Jan. 31, about 90 per cent of the people who needed this surgery received help within 6.5 weeks within Northern Health’s coverage area. For the province as a whole, this was about 10.1 weeks.

For the Fort St. John and Dawson Creek hospitals, however, patients had to wait only about 3.9 weeks for the same surgery. (However, those numbers were compiled when the Fort St. John hospital had two general surgeons, so they were likely to change, based on Chapman’s statements.)

Chapman told the Alaska Highway News he remains optimistic about recruiting a general surgeon.

“Generally there is an excess amount of general surgeons out there,” he said. “It’s the matter of finding the right match between the person and Fort St. John.”

Chapman said that recruiting physicians is “fairly complex.”

“It’s usually how they perceive the community ... schoolings, accommodations, all those types of things,” he said. “We’re working with groups in Fort St. John to see what’s the best way to recruit.”

These could include using physicians to work their contacts. In one case, a doctor in Prince George is travelling to South Africa to try and recruit doctors in that part of the world.

Chapman went on to say that of about 100 potential applicants to become Northern Health physicians, they were able to recruit about 50 to work in northern B.C. last year.

But if Northern Health is going to get Fort St. John a general surgeon, they might have to compete with other health authorities across B.C.

According to a study written in the B.C. Medical Journal last year, in 2012, there were 158 general surgeons practicing within B.C. According to the publication, that was 74 surgeons short of the national average.

A majority of surgeons surveyed for the study “expressed frustration with lack of resources, increased workload, increased volume of cancer cases, more bureaucracy, and longer wait times.”

“In the face of an aging population that will require more surgical care for common cancers, especially colorectal and breast cancer, appropriate resources must be provided to recruit an adequate number of general surgeons to meet growing needs,” the report went on to say.

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