Saskatchewan·SASK BUDGET 2022

'I don't see any magic on the horizon': Expert says recruiting, retaining Sask. health workers will be tough

A health policy analyst says the Saskatchewan government's newly announced plans for recruiting and retaining health-care workers will be difficult.

Government says it’s creating new agency to recruit and retain health-care workers

Health policy analyst Steven Lewis says recruiting and retaining health-care workers in Saskatchewan is a daunting task. (CBC)

A health policy analyst says the Saskatchewan government's newly announced plans for recruiting and retaining health-care workers will be difficult.

The government said in its budget, released Wednesday, that it's creating a "new and independent agency" that will work to recruit and retain health-care workers.

The agency "will work with partners to create, implement and manage innovative short and long-term strategies and programs that support the recruitment and retention of health professionals," the Ministry of Health wrote to CBC News.

Work on establishing the agency will begin early in the fiscal year with a goal of starting operations in the fall, the ministry said.

Dr. Eben Strydom, president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association (SMA) and a family physician based in Melfort, said he doesn't know more details about the agency, but he thinks the government is taking the right approach.

"We're obviously very glad and pleased to see the fact that the government recognizes the issues that we have around recruitment and retention," Strydom said on Thursday.

He said he hopes the government consults the SMA, the Saskatchewan Health Authority, physicians and other groups on the agency plans.

There is $3.5 million in the budget for physician recruitment and retention initiatives, particularly targeting family doctors for rural areas of the province.

The government is also increasing spending by $1.5 million to bring 150 health-care workers from the Philippines to Saskatchewan, with a goal of reaching 300 by 2023-24.

Steven Lewis, a health policy consultant formerly based in Saskatchewan and adjunct professor of health policy at Simon Fraser University, says Saskatchewan has always had retention problems and that he isn't optimistic things will improve, unless significant moves are made.

Lewis said the pandemic has worsened the "culture of health care" in Saskatchewan.

"How's the pandemic management been? Dismal compared to other provinces," he said.

"How influential have health-care workers been in charting the course of the pandemic and being listened to and making sure that science has driven policy decisions as opposed to politics?"

LISTEN | Health policy analyst discusses why health-care professionals in Sask. are leaving and what can be done to retain them: 

Rural obstacles

Lewis pointed to additional challenges that come with being a physician in a rural area.

"Particularly the organization of care is still very fragmented, so it can be a lonely existence," he said. 

He said efforts such as big signing bonuses, payments for on-call weekend doctors, and recruiting more rural residents to medical schools in the hopes that they would go back to rural areas have not been incredibly successful.

"Nothing has worked durably, and it's because it's too hard," he said. 

In his opinion, retention would improve in rural areas if the rural health-care system was redesigned to have care be consolidated to a few centres.

That way, Lewis said, clinics would have a team of people working there, as opposed to one physician.

"You have colleagues, you have supports, you can offer a greater range of services," Lewis said.

"You're not on your own. You have work-life balance. You're not on call 24/7 for long stretches of time."

Merging centres would mean people driving farther for care, but Lewis said the long wait-times to see doctors already have people driving to major cities.

Consulting health-care workers

Lewis said the government should consult health-care workers on how to make working in rural Saskatchewan more attractive, especially those in rural areas who have chosen to stay.

"Let's make sure we don't retry the solutions that didn't work and engage more people in figuring out what to do," Lewis said.

"But honestly, unless this new agency has a mandate to do some of those things, I don't see any magic on the horizon."

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Yasmine Ghania is an Egyptian-Canadian reporter with CBC News, currently based in Vancouver. She was part of a team nominated for a Canadian Association of Journalists award for their investigation into allegations of sexual and physical abuse at a private Christian school. Reach her at