At least two of three doctors hired by Eastern Health to provide family and emergency services on Bell Island plan to leave their positions this fall, and no one seems to know what’s going to happen when they leave.
The Dr. Walter Templeman Health Centre serves about 2,700 residents, and includes a long-term care facility and an opioid addictions treatment centre.
“We’ve been quite lucky until now when it comes to having access to family doctors, because we do have three here,” Kara O’Keefe, a pharmacist at the island’s only drug store, said in an interview this week.
“I guess there’s a rush on with Eastern Health to find someone to fill in … but to the best of my knowledge there’s actually been an ad out for a physician for Bell Island for the hospital for six months,” she said.
“What are we going to do? We don’t really know.”
The hospital also has a nurse practitioner on staff.
The looming shortage is a microcosm of what’s been happening in Newfoundland and Labrador as a whole in recent months.
Earlier this summer, a doctor in central Newfoundland said she’s joined the growing list of people in the province with no family doctor, and no one has been taking new patients in St. John’s for months.
O’Keefe said the dilemma once again raises the question as to why pharmacists in the province are not able to exercise their full scope of practice, as they are in most other provinces.
“I don’t expect to take the place of somebody’s family doctor. It’s important that everyone has a family doctor and a primary health care provider,” she said. “But for chronic disease management, there’s so much more that pharmacists could be doing.”
O’Keefe says the island has a higher rate of diabetes than the provincial average, and that’s in a province that already has one of the highest rates of chronic disease in the country.
She estimates at least two-thirds of the island’s population relies on the local doctors, and that many may just go without such things as blood pressure medication rather than waiting hours in emergency or going to St. John’s.
The opioid treatment centre may also be in trouble, she added.
“You can’t do that with one physician.”
Dr. Alexa Laurie, a retired physician who lives on Bell Island, says she’s at a loss to imagine what will happen.
“What they’re going to do, I really don’t know. I’m on the outside as well, now,” she said in a phone interview.
Laurie has helped to fill shifts on occasion, but is not able to pick up the slack.
“I can’t keep that going, because I’m getting a bit old for that now,” she said.
She said Eastern Health has always managed to get doctors to fill in, but there are hardly any available to do locums these days, let alone take new patients.
On top of that, she said huge lineups at the ferry terminal have made commuting a major headache.
Laurie’s husband often needs to attend medical appointments in St. John’s.
“We make a practice of going over the night before, but most people don’t have that luxury.”
It’s a far cry from when she and her husband bought a house and land to start a small farm there in the early 1990s.
“When we moved over, we had cows and goats and grew lots of vegetables and did all that, which was very good when the children were young,” she said.
“I always liked doing a full-spectrum practice.”
Eastern Health confirmed late Thursday that two of the three doctors will be leaving by the end of November, and that the authority is “actively recruiting” to fill the gap.
“Eastern Health is committed to delivering the most appropriate care to meet residents’ needs,” it said in a statement.
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram