Doctor shortage is big, but how big?

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By MEL ROTHENBURGER

Something is broken with the health care system when 30,000 patients in the Kamloops area are without a family doctor.

That 30,000 figure is the one commonly used nowadays, but it’s more of a guestimate than a real number. It may or may not, for example, include communities like Sun Peaks and those in Electoral Area P such as Sun Rivers, Pinantan, Rivershore, Heffley Lake or McLure, where most residents access there GP and the medical system in Kamloops.

It baffles me how Interior Health can get a good handle on the extent of the doctor shortage — and, therefore, target the need — when it has no science on how many residents are looking for doctors, let alone the demographics.

Yet that’s apparently the case. Dr. Curtis Bell, the executive medical director, community and residential services for IHA, is in charge of recruiting doctors. He has a tough job.

Finding doctors for rural areas is especially challenging because many of them would rather practice closer to a major hospital with better medical facilities and the backup of other doctors.

There’s been some success in encouraging doctors from overseas to come to B.C. to fill vacancies in rural as well as urban areas but it hasn’t filled the gap.

Dr. Bell acknowledges the reputed 30,000 shortfall in Kamloops but when I asked him at a Thompson Regional Hospital District meeting if it included rural residents who access medical care in Kamloops, or refers just to Kamloops residents, he wasn’t sure.

One thing that’s certain, he said, there’s a significant shortage.

He’s right about that. I also pointed out that the GP For Me program run by the Division of Family Practice is a failure when it comes to assessing the size of that shortage.

Patients who have no GP are supposed to be able to phone the Division and register. There’s a misunderstanding that you will be put on a list and when a doctor has an opening for a patient, you’ll get a chance at filling it.

That’s not the case. The list, as far as I can tell, is only for the purpose of getting an idea of what the demand is. But it doesn’t even work for that. If you call the number, you get an answering service, which promises to send you a form, in about a month, to fill out.

Why it’s necessary to mail a form instead of email it, I don’t know, but chances are you won’t get one anyway. I know.

As Dr. Bell explained, A GP for Me operates independently from health authorities under the Divisions of Family Practice.

A GP for Me needs either to do the job it’s supposed to do on generating data on the need for doctors or shut down that part of the program because as it stands it’s a waste of money and patients’ time and, secondly, Interior Health needs to incorporate reliable stats on the shortage into its recruitment strategy.

As it stands now, that 30,000 number — which is shocking — is little more than an approximation with no useful details attached to it.

This column first appeared in the Sun Peaks Independent News.

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