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BEPPLE: Funding necessary to fix doctor shortage

Image Credit: Compilation/Jennifer Stahn



Congratulations goes out to Kamloops own John O’Fee, who has just been appointed as a board member for Interior Health Authority by B.C.’s Health minister, Terry Lake. He’s taken on a big task of helping to govern the health system in the Interior of B.C.

O’Fee and Lake have a long working relationship, going back to their time together on Kamloops city council. While there is only a short time left before the 2017 B.C. provincial elections, hopefully it is long enough for O’Fee to exert come influence on Lake, and then on whoever takes over his portfolio.

O’Fee is a realist, or at least that’s what I’ve heard him say on numerous occasions. No doubt, that will serve him well in his new role on the IHA. The reality is there is excess demand and a shortage of resources.

No doubt, he already knows that there are almost 700 vacancies for doctors across B.C. listed on Health Match B.C.’s website with 429 of them being family doctors. There are 117 vacancies for all types of doctors in the Interior including 79 family doctors. In Kamloops alone, there are 19 vacancies for family physicians.

Which is why it is no surprise that studies have reported between 15,000 and 30,000 people in Kamloops don’t have a family doctor. That is, between one in three and one in six people don’t have a doctor.

Young people, old people. People with chronic health issues, young babies.

The reality (as I’ve often heard O’Fee say) is that there are just not enough doctors to go around.

What O’Fee and Interior Health, in partnership with Lake and the Ministry of Health are tasked with is ensuring primary health services are accessible to everyone. That’s just not happening now.

Every year, UBC Medical School, including its satellite campuses in Victoria, Nanaimo, Prince George and Kelowna admit just under 300 new students. Some of those students will go on to become family doctors. Others will become specialists. 

Even if all of the 300 students each year became family doctors (which is not realistic), there wouldn’t be enough new doctors to go around. Worst off are the rural communities.  Kamloops is also second best to Victoria, Nanaimo, Prince George and Kelowna where students who have studied in those communities will likely have a preference to stay after their studies.

Any given day, from 7 a.m. in the morning, there is a long lineup outside walk-in clinics trying to see a doctor. Every day, emergency rooms are clogged. There are 15,000 to 30,000 people in Kamloops who have no choice. Some people just give up and tough it out.

Plans for a new community health centre on the North Shore are welcome news. In this model, physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners share care of patients. The number of doctors required is reduced because of the nurses and nurse practitioners.

That’s good news but not enough.

There is just one medical school at UBC with four satellite campuses in Victoria, Nanaimo, Prince George and Kelowna. One medical school for all of B.C.

There are just 300 new students studying medicine each year in B.C. If those 300 were distributed evenly across the province, Kamloops would get just six or seven new doctors per year (of all types, family or specialist).

Meanwhile Ireland, which has about the same population as B.C., has six universities with their own medical programs. As well as its own Irish students, these six universities admit an additional 300 North American students into their medical programs each year as well. That is, on top of Irish students, they have spaces for another 300 international students.

Ireland has six medical schools and admits far more students than B.C. because they’ve made it a priority. For Ireland, it is important to build and fund medical schools. B.C. has chosen a very cautious approach, increasing the number of positions in medical schools sparingly. 

As a province, we can continue to rely on importing doctors from all over the world (in Kamloops that’s mainly Africa). Or we can decide to train our own doctors. While Ireland has been pro-active in building medical schools and increasing the number of students, domestic and foreign, B.C. has taken a much slower approach.

The reality is, at present, the B.C. government’s main strategy for filling physician shortages is to import doctors from other jurisdictions. Looking at the number of students entering UBC each year, it’s clear there is no plan for B.C. to train enough doctors here anytime soon.

The reality is, as John O’Fee would say, the current model is broken, and fixing it will cost some money. Money to build or expand schools. Money to train doctors. Because the reality is, as even John O’Fee knows, without doctors, even new models like primary care centres, can’t work.

One final note. Kamloops needs to be part of UBC’s medical training program like Victoria, Nanaimo, Prince George and Kelowna. Otherwise, our city and region are at a distinct disadvantage in attracting the very few B.C. trained doctors there are.

— Nancy Bepple is a recovering politician and local news junkie. She expects she will never recover from her love of the banjo.

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