Doctor recruitment in focus at RRDMA

Sam Odrowski

While Fort Frances needs three more family physicians and two general practice anaesthetists to address its doctor shortage, the issue is slowly improving.

Northwestern Ontario is short 55 to 60 physicians, but the Fort Frances & District Physician Recruitment and Retention Committee is working to address the issue and bring sustainability to the district’s healthcare sector.

Physician recruiter for Riverside Healthcare, Todd Hamilton shared what’s being done to address the shortage at the Rainy River District Municipal Association (RRDMA) meeting on Saturday.

“Northern Ontario Medical School (NOSM) is targeting rural, remote communities by identifying rural medical school candidates and placing them in rural teaching environments,” he explained.

“This has been moderately successful and I believe more grads from NOSM will gravitate to northwestern Ontario, assisting in the physician shortage,” Hamilton added.

He said currently there are two third year students at NOSM who are practicing in the community now. It is hoped that they will return after graduation or refer a friend to the area, Hamilton noted
In the meantime, help is on the way for Fort Frances, a family physician is committed to the La Verendrye Hospital starting in the summer and a full-time anesthetist is committed for 2021.

“However, in small rural communities the departure of one or two physicians has a much larger impact than a few doctors leaving a larger centre,” Hamilton remarked.

“Two doctors leaving can often be a quarter or third of our physician staff, so we are always on the precipice of crisis it seems.”

urrently Fort Frances has 10 family physicians, two general surgeons, and one anaesthetist but more physicians are needed to better cover the emergency department.

“It’s open 24 hours a day and we had 17,000 visits to our on emergency department [in 2018]. One physician is in that department. It’s a crazy number.”

The two surgeons who live in Fort Frances have purchased homes here, their children are in school, and they’re finding work-life balance, Hamilton noted.

“They really are ingrained in the community,” he stressed. “If you’ve met either of them they’re wonderful people, active, and they’ve got interests that they’re pursuing in our community-it’s great.”

Although, the two local surgeons are sometimes limited because there is only one anaesthetist in Fort Frances and he can’t be on call 24 hours a day.

To address this specific challenge and the loss of physicians in 2015 and 2016, the local physician recruitment and retention team introduced a locum program, which brings in physicians and anaesthetists from other communities.

“More than half of our time for anaesthesia comes from locums-they do not live in our area,” Hamilton explained.

While he deems the locum program successful, as the ER has never closed and the hospital has yet to turn away surgeries because of a lack of anaesthetists, Hamilton noted permanently filling those positions would provide better continuity of care.

“When a doctor comes for a year and people get to know the doctor and feel comfortable with them and then they hear that they’re leaving, it does leave patients wondering where they will go next and who is going to pick them up,” Hamilton explained.

Emo faces a similar challenge in its search for physicians, as both of its hospital’s full time family practitioners have pending retirements and need to be replaced.

“We did have a couple doctors in the community now who have visited Emo and next week we have a doctor and second year resident going there from the University of Toronto,” Hamilton noted.

“So we’re doing our best to fill those slots in Emo and we have advertisements in Health Force Ontario-we’re lobbying wherever we can.”

Meanwhile, in Rainy River a long term plan is needed as it currently depends solely on physicians visiting the community.

The doctors are on call 24 hours a day at the ER and cover the six inpatient beds as well as Rainy River’s longterm care facility.

The community has been “quite successful” in retaining visiting doctors and has a new physician that’s interested in continuing visits, Hamilton said.

“I can say Rainy River is quite solid but it would be nice to have a doctor living in that community for sure,” he noted.

The local Physician Recruitment and Retention Committee offers many incentives to attract more health care professionals to the district.

“We offer an honorarium or stipend to travel here that sometimes isn’t available from government organizations and it’s one of the reasons why our ER has never been closed,” Hamilton noted.

Through Health Force Ontario, doctors can receive $115,000 spread over four years if they move to a rural or remote area.

The recruitment and retention committee also offers $60,000 for a two year return service from Fort Frances and Emo.

Partners of the committee, such as Riverside, New Gold, and Norbord help provide that funding.

Physicians who come here are also offered relocation or transitional housing and what Hamilton calls, “the lifestyle package.”

This package includes a slip at the Sorting Gap Marina and a membership at the Civic Centre, which also allows them to use the gym, skate at the arena and swim at the centre’s pool.

“We offer extra earning potential for our physicians and we do offer assistance trying to find jobs for spouses,” Hamilton noted.

He also said Fort Frances isn’t “too rural.” While it is a smaller community, the town has healthy infrastructure and is in proximity to major health centres.

Meanwhile, Mayor June Caul spoke to the minister of Health, Christine Elliot at ROMA early last week to ask for assistance with the town’s doctor shortage.

“Our clinic is understaffed with doctors and our ER is overburdened,” she charged.

“We have asked the minister to consider new strategies for admission [to medical school], a revamped curriculum and revitalized residencies for a customized and unique workforce plan for northwestern Ontario to ensure the physician shortage issue.”