RESIDE program recruits just one doctor to Northern Alberta region

A $6 million provincial program aimed at recruiting doctors for 15 rural communities across Alberta, including Lac La Biche and the town of Cold Lake, has fallen short.

LAKELAND, Alta. – A provincial program that aims to recruit doctors in 15 rural communities across Alberta this year has fallen short. The $6 million Rural Education Supplement and Integrated Doctor Experience (RESIDE) program launched last January and offered up to $100,000 in incentives for doctors who wanted to commit for three years in one of the work in rural communities.

In the Lakeland area, Lac La Biche County and the city of Cold Lake were among the many communities struggling with physician shortages hoping to benefit from the program. But after months of applications from 20 doctors who didn’t meet the requirements, the entire program has recruited just one doctor for the Cold Lake city area, which is scheduled to start next January, NDP health critic David Shepherd said in a news conference on May 12 September.

“Many of the 15 RESIDE-eligible communities are going through a crisis,” he said, citing bed closures and service disruptions in emergency rooms and midwifery units in many of the eligible communities.

program adjustments

The program should have spent $2 million each year for the next three years, while aiming to hire 20 rural doctors annually. Recognizing the recruitment challenges of this round, the UCP government has adjusted the Rural Health Professions Action Plan (RhPAP) programme. The three-year commitment required of physicians has been reduced to two years, and the program is working to expand eligible communities to include physicians who “completed residency in Canada within the last five years.”

Shepherd said the changes don’t solve the problem, especially after the impact of COVID-19 on the healthcare system.

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“You can adjust these parameters in the program, you can shorten time frames, you can increase dollars, but ultimately that’s not what’s going to solve the problem,” he said.

Changes are welcome

For others, the adjustments are a step in the right direction.

“You have to give people credit when they realize a program hasn’t worked and try to change it,” said Lac La Biche County Coun. Charlie Moore.

Moore is part of the Lac La Biche Regional Attraction and Retention Society (RARS), whose goal is to retain medical professionals in the community. While the initial announcement of the RESIDE program last winter was welcome news, Moore said the board had been informed “that there were zero applicants” who had applied to Lac La Biche through the RESIDE program.

“We definitely hoped that more students would be interested in our rural location. I mean, Lac La Biche wasn’t even the only one who didn’t succeed,” she said.

Bigger problems than RESIDE

But when you consider that the obstetrics department at the William J. Cadzow Healthcare Center has been closed for several months and the community is missing about six doctors, the problem is much bigger than the RESIDE program, Moore says.

“The problem is not the provincial government, the problem is Alberta Health Services (AHS), the Federal Immigration Service and the College of Physicians,” she says.

“We have two doctors coming in…Once they land in Canada they have to do their three-month internships and there have been delays in starting the internship so we’re not even 100 percent sure when they’ll start their internship yet,” added Moore.

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As the county works toward hiring staff, qualified physicians specializing in anesthesia and midwifery are the critical role required to maintain health services at Lac La Biche.

“We need a OBGYN GP to fill that hole or a general practitioner anesthetist. Those are the two doctors you need to fill a hospital for births and surgeries, and you don’t get that from a brand new doctor,” Moore said.

Lakeland Territory Working Together

Recognizing the diverse local needs, surrounding communities in the area have filled the gap and worked together as rural bottlenecks arise, said City of St. Paul Mayor Maureen Miller.

“This whole Northeast area references each other, whether it’s our surgeons, for MRIs or CT scans. It’s very important that we have these support systems at Lac La Biche so the community can cover us when we don’t have doctors delivering babies.”

While the community of St. Paul is not part of the RESIDE program and is not currently in a situation similar to that of the Lac La Biche area, they believe the program was initially ineffective.

Miller says physicians working in rural communities are required to perform a variety of duties that require more time and treat more patients who have a wide range of health care needs. One concern, she says, the RESIDE program has not been addressed.

“They are unique because of the diversity that they actually see within communities, so it’s a very broad practice that they cover: from children to geriatrics; from mental health to midwifery. Her practice is very broad, and just because of the breadth of her practice, that’s already a heavily weighted expectation from our physicians,” Miller said.

Moore agrees, saying the challenge is making recruiting harder in rural communities looking to retain doctors whose work-life balance is being hurt by strong demand.

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“It’s not just a problem with Lac La Biche. Country doctors work a lot more hours,” she said. “It’s harder to find a work-life balance in the country because of the way our systems are set up. So while you always have a doctor on call in Lac La Biche County, and that doctor is still working during the day — that seems to be the toughest recruiting problem in the country, in all of Canada,” Moore said.

As hospitals face temporary closures and limited services due to shortages, Moore said residents are being forced to travel to neighboring communities if necessary — a concern she says is especially serious when neighboring communities like Boyle or Athabasca are also impacted and force the residents to travel even further.

“Unfortunately, because it has a rural impact… it’s not like you have to drive 20 or 40 minutes, it’s two hours. That’s the number one obstacle for our residents right now,” Moore said.

And with additional travel comes additional costs for people using medical services.

“These costs to and from our regional and our central care centers are a burden on any family,” Miller said.

As the provincial government works to change the RESIDE program to support rural health facilities, Miller hopes the change from a three-year to a two-year timeframe will support retention in rural communities that are part of the program.

“They bring their families over and they buy houses, so you want to know that it’s a community … that’s going to work for you and your family, too,” Miller said.

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