A new provincial incentive program to recruit doctors to small communities will not be the cure to a problem the government helped create, says a Ponoka physician.
“The RESIDE (Rural Education Supplement and Integrated Doctor Experience) Program really misses the mark on actually recruiting new rural physicians,” said Dr. Greg Sawisky.
Many of the problems in attracting and retaining rural doctors could have been avoided “had former Minister Tyler Shandro not unilaterally torn up the provinces contract with doctors,” said Sawisky.
“A lot of the challenge in recruiting and retaining rural physicians comes from the added and often unpaid responsibilities that rural doctors are expected to take on.”
Health Minister Jason Copping announced on Monday that the program will give up to $60,000 in under-graduation tuition reimbursements to family doctors who practise in smaller communities. They will also receive another $20,000 to $40,000, depending on the level of need in a community through a remote community incentive.
The program will provide $2 million in incentives each year for three years. Fifteen communities were identified for the first year, including Ponoka, Rocky Mountain House and Rimbey in central Alberta.
Sawisky doubts the cash will prove as much of an incentive as the government hopes.
“By a resident physician’s last year of residency, they have likely already made decisions about where they want to practise well before they would even qualify for this program,” he said on Tuesday.
“Medical students who are interested in rural medicine will benefit from this program but I suspect that if a resident physician is on the fence about practising rural medicine, this program will not be what sways them one way or another.”
Many of those who qualify for the incentives were likely planning to pursue rural medicine anyway, he added.
A different approach must be taken to plant the seeds of a career in rural medicine in the minds of those considering a career as a physician, he believes.
“The problem needs to be addressed earlier on by getting undergraduate students who are in the process of applying for medical school interested in rural medicine and begin mentoring them at that point.
“The provincial government cannot spend its way out of the rural health-care crisis.”
Ponoka Mayor Kevin Ferguson said he was pleased to see the initiative introduced.
“It gives us a look at the future in a much more positive way,” he said. “I was really happy with it. If it does anything to help us attract new physicians it’s just going to be a benefit for our town.”
The town’s doctors serve patients from a wide area and more help would be welcomed.
“If it does anything to alleviate the stress on our doctors, especially with being on-call and so on, I think it’s a good thing.”
While there may be improvements that could be made to the program, it is encouraging that the effort has been made, he added.
Rimbey deputy mayor Lana Curle said the town is glad to see it is in the first group of communities chosen to be part of the program.
One of the community’s doctors recently took on another position in the region and the local Rural Physicians Action Plan committee and local doctors are always looking for opportunities to encourage new physicians to make Rimbey their home.
“This community’s health resources provide high quality care to a large catchment area and so it makes good sense to be open to these kinds of new initiatives,” said Curle.
There are many benefits to practising in smaller communities, including the lifestyle, a strong team approach to providing care and the opportunity to learn a wide range of skills.
“Often times, after a chance to try this, these benefits become the reasons that people stay.”