Area goes online to fill doctor gap

North Shuswap: Physician sets up a virtual practice after recruitment efforts fail.

  • Oct. 2, 2014 4:00 p.m.

There will be no warm bodies, but North Shuswap residents will have access to doctor “mouse calls.”

Knowing Drs. Janet and Ken Bates were retiring, members of the North Shuswap Health Centre Society have been trying to recruit a doctor for three years.

They have attended rural physician conferences and tried other unique approaches such as sending out 1,300 recruitment letters to doctors in northern B.C. and Alberta.

“We were trying to sell them on our climate,” says Pat Robertson, co-chair of the North Shuswap Health Centre Society, who laughs heartily when asked how many hours society members have spent trying to recruit a doctor for the Scotch Creek clinic.

“The latest thing we did when Ken and Janet said they wanted to retire in June, was to get locums for three months, hoping maybe one of them would fall in love and want to stay.”

Robertson says they were great doctors but nobody offered to set up practice. However, the third locum, Dr. Mike Figurski, operates Mouse Calls, out of his clinic on the Big White ski hill near Kelowna.

He will assume the role of virtual doctor, making health care accessible, says Robertson, noting many doctors’ appointments involve hands-free procedures such as  prescription renewal, ordering tests and setting up referrals. “If the community will support a virtual clinic, we’ll try to have a staff person there then.”

The Health Centre Society is hoping to pay half-day for a staff person on Fridays when lab services are available.

The Interior Health-approved alternative is for patients to go to the Chase Clinic, which for some, will mean a one-way journey of 70 kilometres.

Transferring medical records is another issue, as is the revolving-door record of doctors leaving the clinic in Chase.

“I have lived here (St. Ives) for more than 10 years and have had four doctors,” says Robertson, noting Interior Health pulled their support from the North Shuswap clinic shortly after the Bates arrived three years ago. “We want IH to consider this to be a physician supply area.”

But that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Dr. Curtis Bell, IH community medical director, says the health authority did a review of all communities a few years ago and chose to focus on the larger ones, then spread to more rural and remote ones.

“One overlying factor is we have no control over doctors and where they can and cannot work,” he says, noting IH decided to focus on Chase and the provision of physician service as well as week-day emergency services – a service that requires at least three doctors. “We have worked very hard to get three to Chase and we’re just getting to that point now.”

The doctors are joining Dr. Cornel Barnard in private practice and some IH employees will be support staff.

In terms of helping the North Shuswap clinic recruit a doctor, Bell says the health centre society is welcome to post an ad on the IH website.

In terms of the proposed “mouth call,” Bell supports the notion with some reservation.

“I would say that it provides for the potential to access a doctor; similarly if you go to Kamloops and go to a walk-in clinic, there’s not really an opportunity to shop for a physician and there is a kind of limitation,” he says. “But you do need to establish a relationship with a doctor.”

Figurski agrees, but thinks Interior Health should cough up enough funds for the health centre society to operate the clinic, seeing as they are efficient and have been providing an excellent service.

“It’s a small investment and having done a locum there, I know an investment in the community would be money well- spent because of local support and community involvement,” said Figurski, noting the population is “disproportionately senior” and there is no transit service. “It’s a very effective use of dollars and I would sure like to see the money in Scotch Creek.”

Figurski would like to see his company’s technology used in the Chase Clinic so North Shuswap residents could access the doctors there when an person-to-person visit is not necessary.

In the meantime, “mouse calls,” will go live in Scotch Creek today, Friday, Oct. 3 with six people getting online consultations.