What Nova Scotia can learn from a B.C. community's red carpet recruitment efforts
'If you're trying to market a community, you need to know the community,' Nanaimo's recruiter says
Ask people in British Columbia to describe the province's doctor shortage, and they'll use words like "desperate," "urgent," and "a crisis."
So it may come as a surprise to those who live out west that Nova Scotia health leaders are looking to B.C. for recruitment ideas. That's because recruiters in B.C. have managed to do something Nova Scotia has not: increase the number of doctors in the province.
Not only that, Nova Scotia lost 51 doctors to B.C. between 2011 and 2016, while only 17 moved the other way, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. The edge over Nova Scotia is likely cold comfort to the thousands of people on the Pacific Coast who are still without primary care.
Attention to doctor recruitment
In Nanaimo, it's estimated that 10 per cent of the population is without a family doctor.
"That is why I think we've poured so much of our resources and attention into recruitment," said Dr. Melissa Oberholster, a family physician in the city. "It's incredibly important, it's right up there at the top."
In 2014, British Columbia created the Divisions of Family Practice, local boards made up of family doctors that get to determine their own priorities.
While some opted to spend money on addictions programming or doctor training, every division decided it needed its own physician recruiter, said Oberholster, who leads Nanaimo's division.
It's because of that push that B.C. is armed with several layers of doctor recruiters. On Vancouver Island alone, there are nine working for divisions and another four for the health authorities.
Nanaimo's recruiter is Myla Yeomans-Routledge. She has no background in health care, but she says that works to her advantage.
Yeomans-Routledge is from the city, and with so many friends and family in the area, she knows what's on the line.
"We don't really have a job description because it fluctuates so much. Each physician needs, requires different support," she said. "If you're trying to market a community, you need to know the community, right? A lot of times I think it's more marketing than recruitment."
The Nanaimo division built its strategy based on physician interviews, and one of its techniques is simply responding to physicians immediately.
"I hear all the time that physicians have reached out to four or five communities, the health authorities, or other recruitment agencies and they haven't heard anything back. So even if their top choice was somewhere else, they end up coming to the island," said Yeomans-Routledge, who paused her interview with CBC several times to respond to phone calls and emails from potential recruits.
It may seem obvious to respond immediately, but Dr. Jenny Bell says that's a big reason why she landed in Nanaimo in 2016.
"I phoned her, and within five hours she phoned me back and had somewhere lined up for me [to work] and also had an inexpensive place to live," Bell said. "She was amazing."
Making communities stand out
It's standard for physicians to visit communities and tour clinics as they try to decide where they want to set up practice, so Yeomans-Routledge uses that time to show why her community is different.
She works under a motto used by other recruiters in the country: hire the family, not just the physician.
She greets arriving doctors at the airport so they don't feel alone when they arrive in a new city.
She takes them to local restaurants and cafés to show them the community.
Yeomans-Routledge acts as a real estate agent, finding doctors homes in catchment areas for the right schools for their kids.
In one case, she's the emergency contact at a kennel for a doctor's dog when the physician goes on vacation.
And she sets up their furniture in apartments so they have somewhere to go as soon as they land.
"The biggest thing is introducing them to another family that they will be friends with, essentially. Nobody wants to arrive to a community and be isolated. They want to feel a part of something. So within the division we do social events."
Keeping up with retirements
With each retirement, the division tries to hire 2.5 doctors as a replacement, because newer physicians tend to start with smaller patient loads.
Since Yeomans-Routledge began, 50 physicians have been hired for Nanaimo, while 30 vacancies remain.
The number means unlike Nova Scotia, the town has not seen an increase in orphan patients.
With the national doctor shortage ongoing, the division considers that a success.
"Absolutely, if we hadn't been able to do that, we would have thousands more patients that didn't have a family physician right now," said Yeomans-Routledge.