Sask. doctor says physicians are considering leaving due to province's handling of pandemic

Carla Holinaty used to rave about Saskatchewan as the place to practise medicine. Now, the family physician says she is thinking about leaving the province because of the way the Saskatchewan government is handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

'It gets harder and harder to go to work every day,' says family physician Carla Holinaty

Saskatoon family physician Dr. Carla Holinaty said it's hard to watch Saskatchewan's health-care system collapse around her. (Provided by Dr. Carla Holinaty)

Carla Holinaty used to rave about Saskatchewan as the place to practise medicine.

Now, though, she thinks about leaving the province because of the way the Saskatchewan government is handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I think that our people and the beauty of this province are unparalleled," said Holinaty, a family physician from Saskatoon who was born and raised in Saskatchewan.

"But … my thoughts of never, ever, ever even thinking about leaving are definitely changing these days."

She said it's frustrating to see the province ignoring the recommendations from experts in her profession over and over again.

"It's a really emotional time for people," said Holinaty.

"It gets harder and harder to go to work every day when you're sort of watching the system that you loved, and that you worked so hard to try and make better, fall apart."

As a family doctor, Holinaty says she has seen how the current COVID-19 situation has affected her patients.

Some had their surgeries cancelled, she said. Others lost access to therapies they rely on.

"It's really hard to know that you could be helping people under different circumstances."

The Saskatoon doctor says she's started looking into job postings in other provinces, and some of them seem promising to her.

She says she's heard from a lot of other people in her profession who share her frustration over ignored recommendations from doctors.

Among her colleagues, she says she's seen "a lot of burnout, a lot of heartbreak."

"There are people like me … who have loved this province, you know, down to the very deepest parts of their souls, and I think they're all feeling similar to [how] I am — sad to be even thinking about leaving, but not sure that they can stay."

The president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association (SMA) is not surprised to hear doctors are considering leaving, but said it is very concerning.

"It's very, very sad to hear this," said Dr. Eben Strydom. 

Restrictions would be unfair: Moe

Doctors in the province have been calling for more restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan during the pandemic's fourth wave.

In a recent letter to Health Minister Paul Merriman obtained by CBC News, medical health officers urged the province to implement restrictions like gathering limits, a proof of vaccination requirement with no option for a negative COVID-19 test, expanded testing and contact tracing, and clearer government messaging on reducing contacts and working from home. 

Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, said Tuesday those recommendations "closely aligned with many recommendations" he had made to the provincial government.

The province has declined to provide specifics on Shahab's recommendations. Earlier this month, Merriman would only say there have been "lots of recommendations over the last little while." 

During a state of the province address at a Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Monday, Premier Scott Moe said imposing more restrictions would be unfair to those who are already vaccinated against COVID-19.

"That larger proportion of people that are vaccinated is why we have resisted calls from many to impose more widespread restrictions, to impose potentially lockdowns and ultimately business closures, because we don't think it is fair," Moe said.

"It doesn't make sense to restrict everyone's activities and ultimately their personal freedoms."

'We don't have any people to spare'

Last fall, Dr. Barb Konstantynowicz, the former president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association, said rural Saskatchewan in particular was already facing shortages of physicians, nurses, lab technicians and physiotherapists.

Holinaty says medical professionals leaving the province now could create further challenges for the health-care system and make it harder for patients in the province.

"Saskatchewan has been a province … [that] has been sort of living in a 'just enough' sort of situation for quite a long time," she said.

"That means we don't have any people to spare."

Holinaty said she has long wait-lists of patients herself. 

Strydom agreed with the Saskatoon family doctor about the human resource issue. Saskatchewan has faced troubles recruiting physicians to the province, especially in family medicine and rural areas, he said. 

"Every doctor is extremely valuable," said the SMA president.

"More needs to be done quicker to get the numbers down so that we can actually get back to the way, or closer to the way, we used to be able to work."

Holinaty says the reason many health-care professionals haven't left yet is their commitment to the province and its people.

"Those patients become like a part of your extended family," she said.

"[I would feel] very, very sad to lose that connection with people that you care very deeply about."

What would make the most difference for the Saskatoon doctor would be if the Saskatchewan government started listening to medical experts, she said.

"It's hard to really love your profession and the work that you do and see the government just so easily disregard all of the work of the colleagues that you respect so much."

Nurses feeling dismissed: SUN president

Other health-care professionals seem similarly frustrated.

In mid-August, Dr. Kevin Wasko, the Saskatchewan Health Authority's physician executive for integrated rural health, was already talking about an exodus of nursing staff at the emergency department at Saskatoon's Royal University Hospital.

The president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses said on Wednesday she hasn't heard from nurses saying they want to work in other provinces — but she has heard some say they want to leave the profession for good.

"They are feeling ignored and dismissed by the government," said Tracy Zambory.

Saskatchewan Union of Nurses president Tracy Zambory says she's heard from nurses who are considering leaving the profession entirely. (Saskatchewan Union of Nurses)

In the union's membership survey this year, 50 per cent of the 2,200 registered nurses who responded said that they are thinking of leaving their profession, according to Zambory.

"We are definitely worried because we know that we've got a health human resource crisis on our hands," said Zambory, who is a registered nurse.

"We are very concerned about patient care in this province, patient safety."

With files from The Morning Edition