Doctor shortage puts pressure on small town ERs

Lack of physicians puts emergency rooms at risk of shutting down, doctor says

Lack of physicians puts emergency rooms at risk of shutting down, doctor says

Family physicians in small towns generally help staff local emergency rooms. (CBC)

B.C.'s ongoing doctor shortage is having adverse effects on rural emergency rooms, and doctors don't see any signs of improvement.

Ealier this week, the South Okanagan General Hospital's (SOGH) emergency department — the only ER south of Penticton in the Okanagan Valley — narrowly avoided an overnight shutdown due to a lack of physician coverage.

According to Dr. Robin Saunders, a Vancouver Island based family physician and board member of Doctors of B.C., the issue is symptomatic of a wider trend that afflicts many small town hospitals.

"There have been similar shortages in many parts of the province, and this is just an example of the chronic lack of physicians in the province at this time," he said.

​Small town shutdowns

The SOGH has shut down in the past due to a lack of adequate staffing. Meanwhile, in December, an emergency room in Ashcroft was forced to shut down under similar circumstances.

Saunders says the chronic lack of physicians means the likelihood of ER shutdowns will only increase.

"Emergency departments throughout the province are often staffed almost exclusively by family physicians who take on that responsibility as part of their job," he said.

"If there's a shortage of family physicians in a particular community, then there's a shortage of physicians to undertake emergency services at times."

In B.C., about 700,000 people, or 15 per cent of the population, have no family doctor.

"The fact of the matter is we're simply not training enough physicians in Canada," said Saunders.

"We are training more physicians now ... but we are simply not keeping up with demand — and don't forget, the population is increasing, and the numbers of seniors ... is increasing as well."

Doctor shortage leads to staffing issues in many small town emergency rooms. 18:14

With files from CBC's BC Almanac