He was premier of Newfoundland from 1979 to 1989. Now, as a B.C. resident, Brian Peckford is still game for a political fight. Today he’s taking on Ottawa and Victoria, saying they need to do more to end the shortage of family doctors.
After he retired from politics, Peckford, moved to B.C. in 1993. He’s lived in Nanaimo, Qualicum Beach and now Parksville. And in each community, the shortage of primary care physicians has been getting worse.
Island Health Region surveys show that about 16 per cent of the 50,000 residents of the Oceanside Local Health Area (Parksville and Qualicum Beach) don’t have a family doctor. That’s better than the B.C. average where about 24 per cent of residents don’t have a regular family doctor.
But the Oceanside area has a surging population of seniors who often have chronic diseases that need continuous medical care.
Peckford’s own doctor, Dr. Hendrik Putter, closed his office a week ago. Ever since he told his 2,000 patients to look for a new doctor, Peckford has been doing just that, to no avail.
To Peckford’s astonishment, Putter arranged for his patients to go to a clinic 74 km away. That’s an illogical proposition, Peckford maintains, since many seniors don’t drive and there is no public transit to the clinic in Courtenay, an hour away. Peckford has also failed to find a doctor willing to take new patients in Nanaimo.
There are about 20 general physicians working in Qualicum and Parksville, but none are taking new patients. Peckford has put his name on waiting lists.
Local news reports in the Qualicum area have suggested a lack of at modern, spacious office space suitable for medical clinics is a major problem in attracting new doctors.
“This is the first time in my 77 years that I’ve been without a family doctor,” Peckford said.
“If I was the premier or the health minister, I’d be coming up with a better battle plan,” he said, noting the Commonwealth Fund has drawn attention to the long waiting times in Canada to see specialists and other studies have also shown Canada’s lower number of doctors compared to other wealthy nations.
In a recent letter to the new federal health minister, Patty Hajdu, Peckford says Ottawa transfers billions in health care payments to the province and he asks if B.C. is meeting its obligations under the Canada Health Act. The Act requires provinces to monitor whether they are meeting the conditions for such federal payments, including access to medical care. He’s asked the federal government to look into whether B.C. is meeting those conditions.
“It seems to me that at the very least, the reasonable accessibility provisions of the Act are being violated as highlighted in my own personal experience on Vancouver Island,” Peckford said in his letter.
“I am only taking this step after I had written the provincial health minister (Adrian Dix) and received an unsatisfactory answer, not from the minister himself but from an employee completely ignoring the main purpose of my letter,” Peckford said, referring to a letter from Thomas Guerrero, ministry executive director of patient and client relations.
Guerrero said Island Health has been trying to recruit a family doctor to Qualicum Beach. He also drew attention to a program designed to recruit and retain physicians. He acknowledged that long term solutions won’t be “of much assistance in addressing your immediate concerns.”
The shortage of family doctors is a major problem across B.C. Health Match B.C., the branch of the Health Employers Association of B.C. that helps recruit physicians from other jurisdictions, has postings for about 900 jobs, believed to be a record high. Of the 900 vacancies, 567 are for family doctors.
A study by B.C. researchers in 2017 showed that the doctor shortage will soon get far worse because 40 per cent of B.C. doctors are at, or near, the age of retirement.
There are 12,960 physicians practicing medicine in B.C. Some 6,616 are family doctors while the rest are specialists, according to the latest annual report of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. The College used to post a list of doctors taking new patients but stopped last year. It now refers individuals to HealthLink B.C. — accessible by calling 811 by telephone. Nurses who answer calls can refer individuals to various Divisions of Family Practice chapters, lists of walk-in clinics and health resources in their area.
The ministry did not comment on Peckford’s demands, but sent a statement from Health Minister Adrian Dix citing spending on new hospitals and additional surgeries. It is also forming primary health care teams, through primary and urgent care centres, with more money for additional doctors, nurses and pharmacists.