Virtual doctors support Fort Nelson healthcare

FORT NELSON, B.C. — After years of strife, Fort Nelson’s healthcare is improving with the help of physicians using Zoom video calls.

Real-Time Virtual Support (RTVS), Northern Health, nurses and physicians have teamed up to include an RTVS emergency doctor who will provide additional coverage for the emergency room.

According to a release from the Rural Coordination Centre of BC, the initiative makes it possible for local doctors to get some rest and time off, resident physicians to get hands-on training and rural communities to increase their healthcare stability.

With the addition of the program, an in-community physician is available on an as-needed basis.

“The work being carried out has the potential to become a model for more sustainable healthcare delivery in other rural, remote and Indigenous communities,” said the Rural Coordination Centre.

Dr. Ioana Lupu, a physician in Fort Nelson, said the work has made a big difference and was a big relief for community physicians.

“They were very reassured to know there was someone else [for residents or nurses to call]. Doing a weekend on-call is really hard. Being assured you’re going to get some sleep, not guaranteed but a good assurance, I think recruitment-wise, it’s going to make it very beneficial,” Dr. Lupu said.

“The weekdays can be brutal if we have to do back-to-back nights. Even having one of the many, many days that you cover, with a chance you will get sleep, is a big improvement.”

The virtual doctor, Dr. Nathan Ashmead, also oversaw a fifth-year Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians resident, Dr. Sean Patrick, who provided support in the hospital.

Dr. Chris Fourie said he appreciated having an extra set of hands to help.

“That weekend, I was the only doctor in town. The day he arrived, even though Dr. Patrick wasn’t on call or expected to work during the day, it was reassuring to have such a well-qualified doctor in town,” Dr. Fourie said.

Dr. Ashmead provided virtual oversight for Dr. Patrick to practice in Fort Nelson.

“I think one of the scariest things is just being alone with the emergency department sign over top of your head and not knowing what’s going to come in. For people who have less training in critical care, it’s certainly a scary experience,” Dr. Patrick said.

“But knowing that you can call someone, at least have someone walk you through stuff, and being there for support, and being a second set of eyes, is super useful. It also, I’m sure, provides some comfort to the people locally, especially the nurses.”

Dr. John Pawlovich, the virtual health lead for the Rural Coordination Centre of BC, which administers the RTVS peer support program, said he was excited about the initiative’s potential.

“There are rural providers all over the province who are in a position of having a call burden that is unsustainable,” Dr. Pawlovich said.

“This strategy creates support to help dilute call burden, build capacity and build collegial atmosphere.”

The release stated since April 2020, rural providers in BC, including physicians, nurses and first responders, have been able to connect with on-call RTVS peer support physicians.

Fort Nelson and the surrounding area face many issues surrounding the availability of specialized services, such as birthing, on top of the staff shortages facing many northern communities in B.C

For the last couple of years, the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality has honed in on health care in the region.

In 2021, the NRRM hired a consultant to devise a plan to improve health care services. Recently, the municipality announced the creation of two initiatives to attract and retain health care providers.

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