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Port Hardy down to just one emergency doctor as of July 1; he offers to pay for a physician assistant

Port Hardy, a town of 4,000, has had to deal with numerous temporary closings of its hospital emergency department because of staff shortages.
Port Hardy physician Dr. Alex Nataros. Photo via Dr. Alex Nataros

A Port Hardy physician says he is prepared to dip into his own pocket to pay the salary and benefits for a physician assistant because of the severe shortage of medical professionals in northern Vancouver Island. 

As of July 1, Dr. Alex Nataros will be the only emergency department physician in the town of nearly 4,000. 

It’s the latest blow for the North Island, where shortages of medical professionals have led to frequent emergency-department closures. 

On Friday, Island Health sent out a notice saying that a temporary overnight closure of the emergency department in Port Hardy is being extended because of a staff shortage. 

It will be closed from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily through to the morning of Feb. 6. 

Plans call for Port McNeill’s emergency department to remain open around the clock. 

Of the three other doctors now working in Port Hardy’s emergency department, one is leaving at the end of March, while the other two are going at the end of June, Nataros said Sunday. 

He said the province needs to think about permitting physician assistants, who are employed in other provinces and with the Canadian military, to work in B.C., where they could fill a need in rural communities. 

Physician assistants require approval from the Ministry of Health to be hired in B.C., something that has not happened yet, he said. 

“As of July 1, am I going to be calling on the government to call in the military to provide medical care in Port Hardy? 

“Unfortunately, our situation now is potentially that dire.” 

The District of Port Hardy is adding its voice to the call for physician assistants. Mayor Pat Corbett-Labatt sent a letter Friday to Health Minister Adrian Dix urging the province to authorize using physician assistants. 

Nataros said he will personally cover salary and benefits for a physician assistant, who he said can earn about $80,000 to $100,000 per year. 

He has already hired a physician assistant currently working in Alberta, subject to provincial approval. 

The Canadian Association of Physician Assistants said the assistants are clinicians educated in a medical school model who practise under the supervision of licensed physicians. They are intended to extend the reach of a physician. 

Duties can include conducting physical examinations, ordering and interpreting tests, prescribing medication and developing treatment plans, the association said. 

While working in rural Manitoba in the past, Nataros worked with physician assistants and saw “how transformational they are to rural and remote health-care delivery, he said. 

“And so from my perspective, it is a no-brainer. … It is a proven cost-effective and culturally safe way of delivering care.” 

Nataros said Indigenous residents in the North Island are under-treated and under-served and their needs could be better met by bringing in a physician assistant. 

Patients on the North Island are seeing a revolving door of doctors, he said. “The population here is more patient than I can imagine.” 

Health outcomes for those in rural areas are known to be poor compared to the rest of the population, which Nataros says is not fair, and could be improved with physician assistants, as demonstrated across Canada. 

Nataros said his five-year vision for the North Island is to have a full complement of physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners, with everyone collaborating. 

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