A record number of doctors are now practicing in Manitoba, but it’s still not enough to keep emergency rooms across the province staffed.
The shortage of physicians has lead to ER closures in the Westman region and left many families wondering if they’ll have access to their care they need when they need it.
Manitoban Candice Klym has a five-year-old son with severe allergies. As a result, the family has seen some close calls.
"When he was about 18 months old he stopped breathing. He was blue," said Klym, remembering a time she rushed her son to an emergency room in Deloraine.
That emergency room is no longer open 24 hours a day and seven days a week. It is now sharing it’s emergency room service with Boissevain and Killarney. The town’s alternate ERs are a 30 to 50 minute commute.
People in the area have been advised to call their local hospital to be directed to the one that is open, or phone 911 for an ambulance that will take them to the designated ER.
Klym doesn’t think her son would make it to a nearby town if he were to have another attack.
"I would probably be mourning my son. I really don’t think he would’ve made it to Killarney," she said.
The three hospitals have lost too many doctors to keep their ERs open full time.
Prairie Mountain Health is the health authority responsible for the Assiniboine, Brandon and Parkland regions.
Officials with Prairie Mountain Health say there are 14 physician vacancies in its rural communities and six vacancies in Brandon.
"It’s probably the worst it’s been in quite some time," said Michelle McKay, the agency’s director of medical services.
The province and the health authority are currently trying to recruit doctors, but the region has had trouble getting them to stay in the area.
One doctor left at the end of August in Deloraine, and another is set to resign in November. Killarney lost two doctors in July.
"Any further vacancies is just going to further complicate an already pretty serious situation," said McKay.
"If we lost a physician from Deloraine or Boissevain obviously it would be very significant because there wouldn't be any resources left in those communities."
Physicians only have to give three months notice for resignation.
Elsewhere in Manitoba, ER services are being shared in Treherne, St. Claude and Notre Dame de Lourdes, three communities that are about 20 minutes apart.
People at risk, says Killarney councillor
Killarney Coun. Gwen Tripp feels the arrangement puts citizens at risk.
"It's an emergency situation, it's unsafe. It's totally unsafe," she said.
Tripp said it's too great a distance for people to travel, and the towns are too large to be sharing services. She added many of the towns already service a wide rural area where people are already commuting to their ERs.
"If you are coming from east of Killarney you could be an hour or an hour and half away for help by the time an ambulance gets there and then gets you to an emergency facility," said Tripp.
She said Killarney had been trying to get a meeting with Health Minister Theresa Oswald, but it was cancelled.
Retaining doctors difficult, minister says
Oswald said there province runs a number of incentive programs to get physicians working in rural communities.
She explained some communities "were offering free tuition — free medical school, if you will — to qualified students who will agree to serve in under-served communities."
She also said the province has increased medical school class sizes and residency spots.
But McKay said high turnover among international graduates is counteracting any of the benefits from those programs.
"Most international medical graduates come from large urban areas in their country of origin, on a conditional license, they have to work in rural Manitoba," she said.
"Once they sort of meet their return of service for a rural site they typically will relocate to an urban center for a variety of reasons."
Not only are international physicians handing in resignations but so are long-time doctors.
"Two of the physicians leaving our region — one who's left and one who's leaving — have both provided 20 years of service, so those are the ones you don't always anticipate," she explained.
Oswald said it is ultimately the doctor’s decision as to where he or she would like to practice and attempts to force them to stay would put existing programs in jeopardy.
Oswald said province won’t force doctors to stay
International students and students who commit to return-of-service agreements in return for incentives are also not bound to serve their whole placement if they don’t want to. They can buy out their placement time.
"If we were to institute any kind of a policy that you cannot pay back your return of service agreement and you must stay in a certain environment, we would never be able to invite any doctors to work in under-served communities," said Oswald.
Oswald said Manitoba will not consider introducing compulsory rural placements for all medical graduates.
"Making remote and rural environments exciting places to work with technology and teams, these are the ways I think we're going to invite people into these hard-to-recruit areas. forcing them into it I don't think is the way that's going to work in any jurisdiction."
The province could not provide the number of doctors that leave after the minimum time required, citing the data is still being collected.
Health minister addresses ERs in question period
Manitoba Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard confronted Oswald on the issue during question period on Monday.
"From a lack of hospital beds to chronic staffing shortages to poor morale, the situations in ERs remain unacceptable," said Gerrard charged. "I ask the minister, when will she recognize that the problems have not been fixed and resign so someone else can take over and do a better job?"
Oswald said the NDP has been working to improve the conditions in emergency rooms by increasing staff numbers, adding family doctors and creating quick-care clinics.
She also said Gerrard has previously voted against motions to improve care.
"It is a wonder that the member can stand in his place today and make such criticisms and then vote against every investment that we put forward in our budgets. Why does he do that?" she asked.