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B.C. doctors offered $100,000 to work in rural areas, including Vancouver Island towns

The B.C. Medical Association and the province are prescribing a $100,000 bonus to encourage family doctors and specialists to set up shop for three years in rural B.C. towns, including Tofino and Port Alberni.
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Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid, who has worked as a doctor in rural B.C., says the incentive will benefit both families and health-care professionals.

The B.C. Medical Association and the province are prescribing a $100,000 bonus to encourage family doctors and specialists to set up shop for three years in rural B.C. towns, including Tofino and Port Alberni.

The offer applies to general and specialist physicians who commit to practise in one of 17 rural B.C. communities, including four within the Vancouver Island Health Authority. The BCMA and the province announced the joint Rural Physicians for British Columbia incentive program on Wednesday.

A number of rural B.C. communities are constantly in crisis due to an insufficient number of doctors — Port Hardy, for example, said Dr. Granger Avery, co-chairman of the BCMA and Health Ministry joint standing committee on rural issues.

The incentive will make a significant difference in recruiting doctors and could keep some hospitals from closing, said Avery, who has practised in Port McNeill for 36 years.

“One doctor can make all the difference in services being available or not available,” Avery said.

However, he said, it’s only a “stop-gap” measure and a long-term solution to create sustainable health care in rural and remote communities is still needed.

To that end, a proposal is being developed to study three to six chronically under-staffed rural communities so as to assess new ways of providing services and paying doctors that would support sustainable health care in those communities.

The incentive program’s 17 designated communities are Port Alberni, Port Hardy, Tofino, Galiano Island, Bella Coola, Burns Lake, Chetwynd, Clearwater, Cranbrook, Hazelton, Kitimat, Nakusp, Pemberton, Princeton, Quesnel, Terrace and Tumbler Ridge.

Within VIHA, Galiano Island needs one general practitioner; Port Alberni needs one emergency physician; Port Hardy needs two general practitioners; and Tofino needs one family doctor.

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne said incentives are needed to attract physicians despite the West Coast’s inherent quality of life.

Tofino has three-full time doctors and needs another to serve the town’s 2,000 year-round residents and up to 4,000 tourists and seasonal workers in the busy summer months.

In addition, Tofino’s hospital also serves Ucluelet and the surrounding area — including the First Nations communities of Clayoquot Sound. The doctors also work in clinics and are on-call.

“At some point, it’s easy to see that a very small number of doctors cannot sustain the services required, threatening the viability of our hospital,” Osborne said. 

Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid, who has worked as a doctor in rural B.C., said the incentive would benefit both families and health-care professionals.

Doctors who sign up for the program will receive $50,000 when they begin working in one of the communities and another $50,000 after their first year of service.

The catch: They’ll have to refund all of the money if they don’t practise the full three years.

Medical school residents who graduate to full-time practice in one of the designated rural communities are also eligible. The incentive is not available to doctors already in the designated towns or serving another rural community in B.C.

The incentive program, worth $1.7 million, comes from a Physician Master Agreement signed last summer between the BCMA and the province.

The deal, which put $90 million in new money into health care over two years, allocated $10 million to expand access to doctors in rural and remote areas of B.C.

The Health Ministry couldn’t say Wednesday how much of the $10 million had been allocated.

charnett@timescolonist.com