New Laurentians health clinic sits empty, waiting for doctor

A new health co-operative in the same building as a new seniors home in Montcalm, in the Laurentians, sits empty a year after it opened, while the project leaders wait for the province to confirm if they will get a doctor.

Year-old clinic built as part of English-language community seniors residence

Stephen Andrew and Johanna Earle each put in about 18,000 hours of volunteer work to see the Stephen Jake Beaven seniors residence and health co-op built. (Marika Wheeler (CBC))

A new health co-operative in the same building as a new seniors home in Montcalm, in the Laurentians, sits empty a year after it opened, while the project leaders wait for the province to confirm if they will get a doctor.

Habitations Stephen Jake Beaven was built to cater to the needs of anglophone seniors looking for low-cost apartments.

Stephen Andrew, the treasurer for the residence as well as the health co-operative, said a key part of the project was to include a health clinic so they could attract a family doctor to the area.

He said the regional health authority has been aware of the project for more than half a decade.

"Everyone seemed very positive, and we saw the then-director of the Saint-Jérôme agency," Andrew said.

"His words to us were, 'You build it, the clinic. And we will help you make it operate.'"

Andrew acknowledges that this was not a written commitment. But now, a year after the clinic was built, the space is empty while they wait for word from the province on a new doctor.

Doctors wanted

Alain Paquette, a spokesperson for the regional health board that serves the Laurentians, said they know there is a "crying need" for more doctors in the area.

The Statistics Canada 2011 census counted more than 25,000 people living the greater Mont-Tremblant area alone. 

Currently, there are about 10 family doctors paid by the provincial health insurance agency, RAMQ, working in Mont-Tremblant and Huberdeau. Most of them work a few days per week or month in the area.

Guy Rondeau is the only doctor working between Mont-Tremblant and Lachute. He sees about 750 patients, 500 of whom are elderly with multiple illnesses at his office in Huberdeau.

He is 85 years old and has no immediate plans to retire. 

"I really feel that if I leave them, they'll have lots of trouble," Rondeau said. He and his wife are also members of the co-op in Montcalm. 

"It's not easy to leave when you have patients you've had for 50 years, and they got old with you," Rondeau says.

Rondeau said it's hard to persuade new doctors to work on their own where they have more expenses and less revenue than working in a group. He said the provincial health minister doesn't support doctors working alone, either.

"The problem is actually the government, the RAMQ – our dear Mr. Barrette – don't want to have any more solos. They want to have factories with many doctors and services," Rondeau said.

Small towns, hospitals compete for doctors

Bertrand Bissonnette is the chief of the regional general medicine department in the Laurentians.

The Ministry of Health creates doctor positions, and Bissonnette allocates where those family doctor positions go in the region.

He said there are many competing demands for doctors between small towns and six hospitals. 

"It's not like regional administration can tell doctors or oblige them to go somewhere," Bissonnette said. 

He said a family medicine group in Mont-Tremblant received confirmation this week that a doctor has agreed to take a new position and will begin work in the fall.

But he can't confirm if the province will create another doctor position or if he would allocate one to the Montcalm co-op.

Bissonette said there may be other options such as a visiting doctor from a family medicine group in Mont-Tremblant or visits from a nurse practitioner or telemedecine.

The brand new clinic space at the Habitations Stephen Jake Beaven is empty while the members of the co-operative board wait from the province to hear about a doctor. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

'Our health system is not working effectively'

Stephen Andrew fervently hopes the new co-op will find a doctor.

He and another board member have paid $185,000 out of pocket for the interest fees for the bank loan and the construction costs of the co-op. 

Andrew said the problem is bigger than that simply finding a doctor to serve the immediate needs of the population.

"It's a question of what happens if you do not have enough GPs for a population – particularly a rural population."

Andrew said it's well known that people without a family doctor will go without preventive treatment. 

"They wait til they are sick, and then they go to the emergency rooms of hospitals in Saint-Jérôme, Lachute, Sainte-Agathe, and they are clogged."