Clinic set to close at the end of the year

Photo by Erica Fisher

Unless an influx of doctors is found, and found fast, the Fort St. John Medical Clinic says it will close its doors at the end of the year.

Dr. Paul Mackey confirmed the news, saying the clinic simply can no longer sustain itself as it continues to grapple with ongoing problems of recruiting and retaining new doctors in the city.

The clinic currently has six doctors, however, Drs. Pieter and Jana de Bruyn have already announced they will close their practice leave the community by July 10. On top of that, both Drs. Richard Moody and William Watt are planning to retire by the end of the year after practicing for more than 30 years in the city, said Mackey.

“They are more than happily prepared to work part-time… but they need someone to share the practice with them,” said Mackey.

“They have a large practice, double the size of normal provincial numbers. They’re hoping someone can be found to help share workload to help them ease out.

“If no one is there, they’ll have to unfortunately stop. We can’t sustain looking after 11,000 patients,” Mackey said.

The departures would leave the clinic with just three remaining family doctors — including Drs. Glen Hamill and Kevin Page — but the trio will opt out of family practice and move to strictly hospital duties.

“We have plenty of work in the hospital to keep us busy,” said Mackey.

Clinic set to meet Northern Health, provincial ministry in July

That means the clock will be ticking loudly over the next six months with every passing day vital in finding and bringing in new doctors to open practices. However, the clinic has spent two years just trying to replace the de Bruyns without any luck.

The clinic initially set August for its closing date, but Mackey said the doctors agreed to stay open until the end of the year as new talks with Northern Health and the provincial ministry take place in July, Mackey said.

“This is a sensitive time, so we’re trying to work together… on a solution,” Mackey said.

“But, we need to see progress. We can’t just keep hanging on and hanging on and hanging on and hoping that something’s going to get better.”

Mackey says the city’s doctor problems will persist unless Northern Health quickly changes the structure in how doctors are paid.

Doctors currently work on a fee for service basis, meaning they are paid for the number of patients they see in a year. However, the cost of running a clinic is becoming more and more prohibitive, especially as doctors leave the community.

With Northern Health estimating salaries in the $350,000 range when recruiting, overhead costs still spiral to $10,000 per doctor per month to run a clinic.

Mackey said doctors have become a “victim” the expansion of the community, struggling to juggle with their clinic demands, and the demands for services at the hospital. If a doctor is only spending a day or two in his clinic, the costs become unjustifiable to absorb, he said.

Mackey says that alone is a deterrent enough to attracting doctors — new grads and otherwise — who are seeking jobs in a competitive market across the country, where better subsidies are offered to cover clinic costs.

“Why would I buy into a business and pay that amount of overhead, particularly if I’m not working in the office five days a week?” Mackey said.

“A third party needs to step up and provide a clinic space for physicians to come to the community and work, and that needs to be funded. That’s really the only thing that’s going to work. We’re not going to pay it. It’s a competitive market. (Doctors) can go work elsewhere, not work as hard, and have a comfortable living and a comfortable earning.”

Northern Health is currently advertising for nine family and general doctors, five of which are locum positions for various contracts through the summer and fall. It is also recruiting for two surgeons, a pediatrician and a psychiatrist.

Northern Health is offering a $20,000 signing bonus, along with $15,000 in relocation funding to doctors that are hired.

Five new doctors expected to arrive in July and September, who will be assigned to the unattached patient clinic for residents who don’t have a family doctor. Those doctors are Dr. Hamid Sadri, Dr. Inthuja Nanda, Dr. Wea’am Abbas, and Dr. Shiva Tayebi, all of whom are just completing their International Medical Graduate Residency Program.

The most recent human resources plan from Northern Health, completed in 2006, projected a need for at least 31 doctors. It is currently working on a plan that will have updated doctor demand numbers.

Calls to Northern Health officials have not been returned.

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