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Doctors say north Island physician numbers still too low

The physicians suggest closing the Port Hardy emergency room 24 hours a day until additional physicians are recruited, and shifting resources to Port McNeill Hospital
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Port Hardy Hospital. VIA GOOGLE STREET VIEW

Five North Island doctors say they have fewer physicians while ERs in Port Hardy and Alert Bay remain closed ­overnight a year after the province and health authority unveiled a $30-million stabilization plan.

“It has now been almost one year since the ­consolidation of emergency services ­announcement, yet there has actually been very little ­stabilization taking place,” said a Dec. 5 letter from the physicians to the B.C. Medical Association and Health Ministry.

After months of ­revolving overnight closures last year at the Port McNeill and Port Hardy hospital ERs, the ­province and Island Health held a news ­conference in January to announce a multimillion-dollar plan to “stabilize and improve access to reliable health-care services.”

The plan included temporary overnight ER closures for Port Hardy Hospital and Cormorant Island Hospital in Alert Bay, and around-the-clock service at Port McNeill Hospital. Regular hours would be restored “as soon as possible,” said Island Health.

One of the goals of the ­temporary overnight ER ­closures was to allow time to recruit staff, Island Health said. At the time, the region was dealing with a ­shortage of physicians, nurses, paramedics and laboratory technicians.

The $30 million earmarked for the Mount Waddington region included money for ­everything from upgrading housing for visiting doctors to providing a daily shuttle between Port Hardy and Port McNeill hospitals — which are a 40-minute drive apart — ­deploying mobile CT-scanning services to the region, and expanding staffing at Port Hardy Hospital.

Money was allocated for recruitment incentives for ­eligible staff, bonuses for ­referring physicians to the region, and compensation for clinicians coming to the region to fill shifts.

In March, Island Health reported it had hired 18 new staff members for the north Island, including three ­registered nurses, one licensed practical nurse, one ­community professional for home care and public health, seven ­support staff, four porters, one ­protection services officer and one management person.

But in the Dec. 5 letter obtained by the Times Colonist, a group of mostly new family ­doctors in the region said there are fewer physicians in Port Hardy and Port McNeill now than a year ago.

In the past, Port Hardy had about seven physicians and Port McNeill four, for a total of 11.

While there are now more doctors in the region, many are part time and locums — temporary replacements — or do not have ER privileges, which means the equivalent of 5.5 physician positions provide acute care in Port McNeill and Port Hardy ERs.

The Dec. 5 letter says the “overall hope” rests with newly trained physicians opting to perform their “return of service” contracts in the north Island and fill vacancies in ER departments. A return-of-service contract is one given to doctors who trained abroad and in order to practise in B.C. agree to work in an underserved area for two or three years.

In their letter, the physicians suggest closing the Port Hardy emergency room 24 hours a day until additional physicians are recruited to live and work in Port Hardy, or a consistent rotation of locum physicians is made available.

During the closure, hospital resources and staffing should be redirected to Port McNeill Hospital to improve operations there, say the doctors, who are also calling for an ad hoc advisory panel to review north Island quality of care and work with the physician group to provide recommendations.

But Port Hardy Mayor Pat Corbett-Labatt rejects the notion of closing the hospital in her town, saying she’s committed to the ER reopening overnight, something she recently discussed with B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix.

“Physician recruitment is getting better but nurse recruitment is still a challenge — and we need the nurses to be able to open 24-7,” said Corbett-Labatt, who is hopeful for a spring reopening.

Corbett-Labatt concedes that the majority of the physicians in Port Hardy are locums, but notes it’s “promising” that two physicians, a husband and wife team, are due to arrive in the spring. “We’re hopeful for 24-7 ER coverage with doctors that are in our community.”

Corbett-Labatt said Island Health is “striving hard” to bring stability to the region’s health care services. As part of those improvements, Port Hardy hospital has access to a shared mobile CT scanner and transportation between the region’s two main hospitals and to other health-care facilities.

Port McNeill Mayor James Furney is also encouraged by the recruitment of doctors in the north Island. He said Port McNeill has four family doctors living in the area and although one is leaving soon, two new physicians are due to arrive next fall.

Furney says Alert Bay has three physicians doing rotating shifts at Cormorant Hospital and he’s “optimistic” that Port Hardy’s ER will reopen overnight in the new year. “My crystal ball would tell me they’d be open for next summer.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com