Worries about recruiting pediatric surgeons plague Children's Hospital of Saskatchewan

The provincial Opposition is worried about a lack of pediatric surgeons in Saskatoon, especially with the Children's Hospital of Saskatchewan about to open in 2019.

Province says it's confident another specialist will be recruited by hospital's opening

An architect's rendering of the Children's Hospital of Saskatchewan. (Saskatoon Health Region)

The provincial Opposition is worried about a lack of pediatric surgeons in Saskatoon, especially in light of the impending opening of the Children's Hospital of Saskatchewan in two years.

Right now, there are two surgeons specializing in pediatrics in Saskatoon and two in Regina, according to the Ministry of Health.

Efforts are underway to recruit a third to Saskatoon.

Although a general surgeon in Saskatoon is assisting, children have been sent out of the city when pediatric surgeons are not available.

"The reality is, we have a $300-million facility, where we may not have the folks there to staff it properly," Opposition Health Critic Danielle Chartier told CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning.

"We're not talking about specialists here," said Chartier. "We don't have enough pediatric surgeons in our largest health region where we're building a hospital."

Too few sick children to keep surgeons busy

The main issue at play is recruitment. Speaking at the province's Human Services Committee last week, the deputy health minister said a perceived lack of patients has hindered recruitment efforts.

"The real challenge — and it's the same in Regina — is that the volumes aren't there for pediatric general surgeons to maintain their skills," said deputy health minister Max Hendricks. "I think we have had some challenges, you know, keeping three [in Saskatoon] and keeping them busy."

Hendricks said many general surgeons aren't comfortable operating on children, as they don't have the specialist training.

"There might be issues with the complexity of the surgery," Hendricks told the committee. "Children aren't just little adults."

Minister remains confident

However, the province's health minister is confident another pediatric surgeon will be recruited by the time the Children's Hospital opens in two years.

"Our officials tell me they're very hopeful, based on the very good success we've had in recruiting other positions, they're hopeful that we'll be able to recruit as per the plan," said Health Minister Jim Reiter.

Reiter said right now, out-of-province-transfers affect mainly children with rare conditions or those who need specialized care. He cited the Stollery Children's Hospital in Edmonton as a centre for pediatric cardiac patients from across Western Canada.

Reiter said relocating any pediatric specialists currently based in Regina is "not part of the plan right now."

"I can't guarantee that there won't be, you know, one or two or three positions that, when it opens, that we're going to have to continue recruiting, but that's not unusual in an operation this size anyway."

$1.6M this year to recruit pediatric specialists

Health officials said when the Children's Hospital of Saskatchewan opens in 2019, it will be fully staffed with 70 full-time equivalent positions. 

Right now, 50 pediatricians are working in the Saskatoon Health Region.

In an e-mail, the province said the Children's Hospital will be staffed with neonatal specialists, along with providers for critical care, developmental care, endocrinology, gastroenterology, hematology, infectious disease treatment, cardiology, nephrology, neurology, respirology, rheumatology, medical genetics, pediatric urology, surgery and emergency care.

$1.6 million was provided in the 2017-18 budget to help fill the remaining specialty positions.

Few pediatricians in Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan has fewer pediatricians per capita than any other province except New Brunswick, which has no children's hospital.

Saskatchewan has 76 general pediatricians. Meanwhile, Manitoba has 110 and Alberta has 343, according to the Canadian Medical Association's 2015 report.

As well, pediatricians continue to be the lowest-paid doctors in the province, according to the latest figures from Saskatchewan's Ministry of Health.

Their average gross payment of $193,600 per year is less than half of that of their fellow specialists. It's only a fraction of the $1.15 million earned by the average ophthalmologist, with one topping the chart at more than $2.3 million.

The Children's Hospital of Saskatchewan is set to open in 2019.

With files from Jennifer Quesnel, Jason Warick