A doctor shortage in the Comox Valley is nothing new.
Residents in the growing community have struggled for years to find their own family doctors.
This summer, the situation became dire.
With the abrupt departure of two family doctors in the Comox Valley - Alex Nataros in Comox (indefinite medical leave) and Stephen Fox in Cumberland (practice closure) - the number of detached patients has spiked dramatically.
Speaking on behalf of the Comox Valley Division of Family Practice, Dr. Bonnie Bagdan (an MD at the Seacove Medical Clinic in Comox) estimated that there are approximately 13,500 residents without a family physician in the Valley, or roughly 20 per cent of the population (2016 Census lists the Comox Valley as having a population of 66,517).
“Last week (our clinic) had so many phone calls from patients who are so anxious about having lost their physician and not knowing where to turn to,” said Bagdan. “So they are calling each of the clinics that are in the Comox Valley, asking if we can take them on. We already are at capacity as physicians in this community, with the number of patients that we have, and we cannot take any more on. The physicians we have right now cannot absorb the 13,500 (detached) patients, so yes, we are really feeling that stress.”
There are 17 clinics in the Comox Valley, as well as two walk-in clinics, and a health connections clinic. There are 132 members in the Division of Family Practice, and 78 of those have family practice clinics.
No practice in Cumberland
The situation is particularly concerning in Cumberland, as Fox’s practice - the Ginger Goodwin Medical Clinic - is the only family practice in the village. Its closure is effective July 31.
Mid Island-Pacific Rim MLA Josie Osborne, whose constituency includes Cumberland, said she was made aware of the situation in the village immediately.
“I did hear directly from Mayor (Leslie) Baird - as soon as she heard that the clinic would be closing, she called me,” said Osborne. “And I heard from a couple of constituents as well, through the MLA office. I have been in touch with the Ministry of Health, and the minister’s office, and I am working with (Courtenay-Comox MLA) Ronna-Rae Leonard because together we serve the residents of the Comox Valley, so it is important that we are in good communication and that we can represent the (entire Valley population).
“I can tell you that the Ministry is listening and that the Ministry is actively working with the Comox Valley Primary Care Network (PCN) to better understand the situation and to determine what needs to happen next.”
Dr. Bagdan is the PCN lead for the Division of Family Practice.
“The first attribute (of the PCN) and one of the most important, is reducing the attachment gap, and making sure every patient that wants a physician has a physician,” she said. “So we are addressing the physician shortage through the Primary Care Network.”
The B.C. Ministry of Health acknowledged the situation in the Valley and released a statement to The Record on July 15, saying it is looking into the problem.
“The Ministry recognizes that population growth, retirements and recent departures of primary care providers in the Comox Valley all affect the number of people needing primary care and that the plan for the community will need to adjust over time as the community need evolves,” reads the statement sent to The Record.
“The Ministry is collaborating with the Comox Valley PCN to look at local strategies to ensure patients can receive primary care when they need it, including potentially adding new family physician and nurse practitioner resources.”
PCN launched last year
The PCN was an initiative launched last September to partner with new and existing healthcare professionals within Island Health, new Indigenous health resources, First Nations Health Authority resources and community organizations as part of a networked, team-based approach to providing integrated, whole-person care.
According to the July 15 statement, the PCN has brought approximately 16 health care providers to the area.
Bagdan said considering the change of circumstances regarding physicians in the Valley, they have reached out to the Ministry to ask for more help.
“We… need to hire; we need more physicians in the Comox Valley, or more primary care providers, meaning physicians and nurse practitioners,” she said. “We have been in very close contact with (the Ministry) and we are showing them that we now have this acute attachment gap and we are requesting funds to be able to attract and hire those care providers to the Comox Valley.”
“The Ministry is listening and will help us.”
Courtenay-Comox MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard has been in correspondence with the Comox Valley Division of Family Practice regarding the doctor shortage in the Valley.
“There has been a challenge, particularly in this last year - the movement of people, including doctors, has been a lot more limited,” she said. “So we are not getting that influx of… locums, or doctors who choose to move.
“I’ve been talking to the Ministry about the unique challenges that we face here, and I am trying to find solutions, but it’s not going to be just waving a magic wand to get doctors into the Valley. Using the team care approach is probably going to be where we are at.”
Osborne wants to ensure her constituents that she is doing all she can to alleviate the anxiety they may be experiencing, as she has lived through a similar issue.
“I… understand the struggle that many people are facing,” she said. “I can remember when my physician retired in Tofino, another small town, it doesn’t feel very good when you are not sure what happens next. So it’s important for my constituents to know that their local officials, like myself, and Mayor Baird, are absolutely advocating on their behalf. And in return, myself and Ronna-Rae Leonard are working with the Minister of Health, making sure that people’s voices are being heard, and making sure that people understand what they can do in the meantime.”
Bagdan said the main thing for residents of the Comox Valley is to understand that the physicians and local political representatives are doing everything in their power to rectify the situation.
“The team on the Primary Care Network is seeing so much collaboration with Island Health, First Nations - Indigenous Health - and the divisions, working together to solve the problems that we have identified.
“We have all come together to say ‘this is really important’ and we will not leave people behind. We are working really hard to make sure we have everybody’s back, and that everyone who wants a family physician or primary care provider has one.”
Residents encouraged to register
Bagdan recommends anyone who is detached to visit the Health Connection Registry, Comox Valley at healthlinkbc.ca
“It is a repository of information that people can call, leaving their name and number and demographic… and then we work on providing people with family physicians,” she said.
Registering also gives the provincial government a more clear idea of the number of patients seeking doctors.
Those without access to a computer can call 8-1-1 (7-1-1 for the hard of hearing).