British Columbia

Health authority seeks solutions to doctor shortage in northern Island community

By May, Port McNeill residents will be serviced by only one primary care physician and the health authority has issued a request for proposals help find a site in town to open a public primary care clinic.

Port McNeill residents will have only one primary care physician by May

Port McNeill, a town of just over 2,000 people, has one private medical clinic that services not only the town's residents but also people living in outlying rural communities on the north end of Vancouver Island. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

About 2,400 people living in and around the northern Vancouver Island town of Port McNeill will be serviced by only one doctor come May and local leadership is working with the province to try to find a speedy solution.

The community has one private clinic and while temporary doctors have been rotating in to keep it staffed, Mayor Gaby Wickstrom said what the region really needs is a primary clinic that is owned and operated by Island Health and staffed with permanent physicians.

"If we don't have reliable health care, it's going to be very hard to keep people in the community," said Wickstrom, speaking Monday on CBC's On The Island. "There has to be a better model."

The local health authority agrees.

On the government website B.C. Bid, Island Health has posted a proposal request to try to find an appropriate site, 2,600-3,600 square feet in size, to establish a public clinic. 

"Our goal is to create a sustainable model for primary care in Port McNeill," said the health authority in a statement.

Gaby Wickstrom is the mayor of Port McNeill. She says the lack of permanent doctors in the community meant the town's lone medical clinic had to close at one point during the COVID-19 crisis. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

Wickstrom said Island Health has also committed to checking in with her and local First Nations every two weeks to help work on regional solutions in the interim.

"We have the knowledge and the expertise, we have the will and we have the commitment among ourselves and First Nations to really work hard to solve this problem," said the mayor.

Wickstrom said she hopes the province will have found a site for a public clinic by this summer, but also said that first site will be short term and that it could take a year or so to find a permanent space for what she hopes will be a larger facility where multiple medical professionals will have practices.

The only medical clinic in Port McNeill is a private one and the town's mayor says she is working with the local health authority to establish a public clinic that will house medical professionals in different fields. (Facebook/Port-McNeill-Medical-Collaborative)

She said she would like to see a space with doctors, dietitians, physiotherapists and nurse practitioners all under one roof in "a more patient-centric care model." 

"As people age they want to age in place and if their health is fairly good they want to know that they have a reliable doctor that they can count on to be there for them and that's' very important for a community," said the mayor.

For the time being, Island Health said in a statement it will continue to use short-term options, such as the use of temporary clinician coverage, locums and care providers from neighbouring communities to support patient care in Port McNeill and surrounding communities.

Island Health's request for proposal deadline is April 12.

LISTEN | Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom on the town's doctor shortage and proposed solutions:

With files from On The Island