A discussion that frequently creeps up in discussions throughout local communities is doctor recruitment and retention.
While local communities have teams in place that work hard to attract medical professionals to local healthcare units and hospitals, many community members question why there’s a seemingly short stay by doctors to rural areas.
Peace River’s representative for Peace Regional Healthcare Attraction and Retention Committee, Elaine Manzer, says physician and healthcare professional attraction and retention is a multifaceted issue that is a concern for rural municipalities across the province. She explains approximately 40 committees across the province have been created to help attract medical professionals to rural communities.
“We are a liaison between Alberta Health Services (AHS) and our local healthcare providers and their mutual goals and needs,” says Manzer.
“We provide a community face to the professional aspect of recruitment and retention.”
Manzer says opinions on whether or not there are doctor shortages in the area varies, but she says she feels we could use some more physicians.
“I would say in the town of Peace River and surrounding region we do not have enough physicians,” says Manzer.
“From what I understand, a large number of people in the region do not have a family doctor and the physicians we do have rarely are able to open their panels for more patients.”
According to recent information, Peace River also has job openings for 25 other healthcare staff members. This includes one healthcare aide, eight licensed practical nurses, two mental health therapists, 13 registered nurses, and one speech pathologist.
Manzer provided results from a Rural Health Professions Action Plan (RhPAP) survey regarding what attracts doctors to an area, and then ultimately the reasons why they stay there. She said many of these items will be used by their local committee when discussing doctor recruitment and retention. A total of 794 surveys were submitted by healthcare professionals.
While only nine percent of respondents said financial incentives were the reason they chose to start working in a rural community, 24 per cent said the financial incentives are what made them stay. Compare this to a 64 per cent total saying financial incentives had no play in enticing them to work in rural areas.
The most notable factors in both attracting medical professionals and retaining them were proximity to family, a welcoming community, and a supportive healthcare team.
Smoky River Regional Attraction and Retention Committee (SRRA&R) coordinator Myrna Lanctot says AHS is currently looking for one more doctor for the Smoky River Region. She says they have been fortunate in the region with doctors staying for the full length of their initial contracts.
“Physician contracts in the past have been three years, now they are five years,” says Lanctot.
“We have had all physicians except one that stayed their full contract and in most cases years beyond their contract.”
The survey also realized several healthcare providers state having a healthy work-life balance is important. Rural areas are sometimes short staffed, causing nurses and doctors to have to work extra hours. It pinpoints the importance of medical professionals having more time off to enjoy life outside of the hospital or clinic’s walls.
Manzer says some of the issues may be beyond the control of teams trying to retain medical professionals.
“As the survey indicates, they have all sorts of reasons for staying for varying times, from family reasons including schools, recreation and other interests, interests of their partners including career opportunities, to professional reasons,” Manzer says.
“They realize they want to change their scope of practice, such as maybe doing more anesthesia than they can incorporate into their practice here.”
Some survey results also pointed to a positive swing on working rurally. Many respondents said working in rural areas allowed them to experience working in a full scope environment where they can practice a multitude of skills, they also noted a more peaceful way of life, and the ability to get to know patients on a more personal level rather than just a clinical way.
In the end of the survey, medical professionals were able to give some insight as to what may attract or retain their colleagues. These included promoting healthcare professions at rural schools, providing better supports for prospective students who live in rural areas (remote education), and accepting more medical students from rural areas.
Lanctot says a barrier for healthcare professionals is our distance from urban centres.
“We are far away from larger centres for specialty shopping, entertainment, cultural events, food options, flights and the like,” says Lanctot.
“When you are from this area travelling a few hours to get to the specialty services seems to be normal, however; coming from larger populated areas travelling two to four hours one way can be a daunting task. With winter storms being part of our reality in the north, it adds another challenge to accessing specialty services.”
The Peace Regional Healthcare Attraction and Retention Committee have started to expand their scope of medical professionals they are trying to attract to local medical facilities.
“We have started discussions on nurse practitioners and will be continuing to advocate for that profession with the minister and AHS,” says Manzer.
“We will take the opportunities that we can to support increasing the NPs that can practice in our area. Their practice can effect all sorts of things in the healthcare field from lessening visits to ERs, being able to prescribe other options for the patients that they see. Alberta needs to move forward with a more rapid and broader acceptance of the value NPs can add to our healthcare system.”
Both Manzer and Lanctot agree one of the most important parts of physician retention is that everyone in the community welcome them and their families and help to integrate them into the community activities they want to experience.
“Happy life can mean happy career,” says Manzer.
Lanctot extends Manzer’s comments and says she and the committee are appreciative of every physician for the time they and their family have spent in the Smoky River Region. She says residents in the area are kind and approachable, and they can have a big impact on physician retention.
“Welcome the new families to the community, inform them of the gatherings that you are aware of and invite them to join you,” says Lanctot.
“Connections and making friends are what will truly grow an attachment to the region and make them feel that this is home.”
Both recruitment teams try to make the physician’s welcome to the area as comfortable as possible, providing them with site tours and welcome bags filled with items from local businesses. If you have a local business and have items you would like to contribute to welcome bags for our healthcare professionals, please reach out to your local recruitment teams.
As for the survey results, recruitment teams are continually examining suggestions that are provided to them to try to attract and retain healthcare professionals in rural communities.