After Shoal Lake’s only doctor left town to work elsewhere, the mayor of the Rural Municipality of Yellowhead is sounding the alarm on the state of health care in his community.
The final doctor, who was the only physician remaining in the community after another doctor’s earlier departure, moved from practising at both the Yellowhead Community Clinic in Shoal Lake and the health clinic in Hamiota to just the latter facility. Now, there is one nurse practitioner working as the sole health-care provider at the Yellowhead clinic.
The health-care personnel shortage isn’t just affecting rural Manitoba but rural communities across Canada, too, said Mayor Mervin Starzyk.
“The most frustrating part is when the regional health authority sees fit — because of a shortage in the metropolitan regions and surrounding areas — to relocate a physician from the rural areas to some of those larger centres,” he said.
Although a spokesperson for Prairie Mountain Health, the regional health authority responsible for the RM of Yellowhead, including Shoal Lake, said “there is physician coverage” for the transitional care unit and nurse practitioner coverage of the personal care home in Shoal Lake.
The health authority has met with local representatives and members of the Yellowhead Community Health Clinic committee to discuss “recruitment and services” to the area, and is actively recruiting a second nurse practitioner to provide primary care to the community.
PMH is also working with students that are currently in the nurse practitioner program or graduating within the next year that are doing placements in the region.
“Recruitment for PMH nurse practitioner positions are also currently posted with several universities,” the spokesperson told the Sun in an email.
As well, the health authority is collaborating with the community and stakeholders on a number of physician recruitment strategies, including university graduate programs and physician residency programs.
But recruiting doctors is only one part of the problem, Starzyk said. Issues such as heavy workloads, being on call 24-7 and wanting to live in bigger urban centres can all lead physicians to have a limited time span in rural communities.
“The public has to realize that doctors are people, too. They have private lives, they have families … they have spouses, and it can turn out to be lonely for them,” Starzyk said.
Young, up-and-coming physicians are also keen to practise in bigger areas where they have more opportunity to work in different areas of medicine, he added.
Sometimes, physicians who have agreed to make their home in a rural community are later redeployed by the health authority, Starzyk said, which is frustrating for the health committee trying to recruit them.
“We’ve heard stories where a community will find a physician, he’ll want to come to the location but the regional health authority steps in and says ‘No, you’re going elsewhere.’”
It’s something that is frustrating for both the communities and the doctors that have agreed to serve them, Staryzk said.
PMH didn’t immediately respond to the Sun’s request for a followup interview.
While Starzyk is confident in the current nurse practitioner’s ability to serve her patients well — calling her a “life saver” — one health-care professional is not enough for a community of more than 1,800. Access to emergency care is also hampered by the labour shortage.
“There’s a certain limit to what they can or can’t do.”
For community members who aren’t lucky enough to be one of the nurse practitioner’s patients, they must instead travel to receive health care, something not everyone has the ability or the means to do, the mayor said.
“Affordability is definitely a big issue.”
While Staryzk has met with provincial Health Minister Audrey Gordon on two occasions in the last six months, they haven’t proven as fruitful as he would have hoped.
“She seems to be aware of the frustration and disappointment that communities are having, [but] she’s looking at me and saying, ‘Have you got any ideas? Let’s hear them.’ And it’s frustrating because not only is Manitoba looking for doctors, so is every province in Canada.”
Starzyk, who also serves on the board of directors for the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, said the fact that he’s hearing the same stories from other small communities has brought one question front and centre in his mind: “Is Shared Health working?”
The provincial health organization was created in 2018 to “better integrate and co-ordinate the planning of patient-centred care in Manitoba,” the province said.
Gordon was unavailable for an interview Friday, her office said, directing the Sun’s request to Prairie Mountain Health instead.
Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun