Oliver Mayor Martin Johanssen hopes that his town can set the South Okanagan on the path for better primary health care.
Johanssen has assembled a resolution for the Southern Interior Local Government Association (SILGA) calling for more funding specifically for team-based primary care clinics like the Ponderosa Primary Care Clinic in Penticton.
“There’s no silver bullet,” said Johanssen. “We have to explore this from every angle and try and get some traction somewhere.”
A Growing Need for Care
There’s a desperate need for more primary care in the South Okanagan community, where there are currently nine general practitioners, some of which have either small practices or work part-time.
The Nk’Mip Resource Centre Health Clinic in Oliver, run by the Osoyoos Indian Band, lost its attached doctor in December 2020.
According to Statistics Canada, the Town of Oliver had a population of 4,928 as of the last census in 2016, while Penticton’s Ponderosa clinic is home to 7000 patients who are cared for by six family doctors, two nurse practitioners, two specialists, two nurses, five allied health professionals and seven administrative staff.
Some people, like Carl Gustafson, are lucky enough to have had a doctor before they moved that they’re able to stay in contact with.
“None of the people in our acquaintance that we’ve come to know here in Oliver have their own doctor,” said Gustaffson. “I have a doctor that I do some telemedicine with down on the coast and some specialists, and they keep asking me ‘when are you going to get a doctor up there?’”
Gustafson moved to the area ten months ago. He and his wife immediately joined the regional Patient Attachment list, which according to the South Okanagan Similkameen Division of Family Practice (SOS DFP) currently has 5,000 residents, with 4,500 attached through it since 2019.
Although the South Okanagan General Hospital is currently fully staffed according to Interior Health, as recently as 2018 the emergency department had to offer limited hours and services due to a lack of doctors.
Finding Space for Healing
Getting funding for the staff is part of the process of sending rural growth plans and getting them approved by the provincial government, but funding to provide the clinic space for those healthcare workers is lacking.
Ponderosa received $340,000 in funding for the renovations and equipment to get the facility up and running.
Having that clinic space, with the attached administrative staff and allied healthcare workers like dieticians and physical therapists helps in attracting doctors to communities.
“It no longer makes sense or is financially viable for them to invest in clinic space and equipment to the same extent as before. And they are looking for others to help run the business of the clinic in partnership with them,” said Tracy St. Claire, the executive director for the SOS DFP. “Ponderosa successfully recruited two new family physicians in the past five months to replace retiring doctors and there is interest from other doctors to join the clinic but space limits further growth.”
The team-based care model is one that even those not involved in government or medicine can appreciate.
“I don’t think the answer is individual doctors’ practices. We’ve moved to a few places in B.C. over the last 20 years,” said Gustafson. “We spent a year on Vancouver Island, and they had just set up something they called a primary care network clinic. “
The lack of doctors is also one that is only going to grow, as the communities of the South Okanagan like Oliver continue to expand. Ponderosa has proven so popular it has already filled up.
“It’s already packed, it’s only taking names off the list, and it’s in Penticton. But if you travel around Oliver or Penticton, there’s construction and houses going up all over the place,” said Gustafson. “The property market in the Okanagan is still on fire, and the population is growing.”
Out of the 81 general practitioners in the South Okanagan Similkameen, about 25 are expected to retire within the next five to 10 years according to the SOS DFP.
A Resolution to Provide Support
Johanssen is calling for the province to help people who don’t have necessary access to care with additional funding for primary care clinics to communities with approved primary care network growth plans.
The mayor’s resolution is one of four that Oliver council approved on Feb. 22. to send to SILGA, which is made up of elected officials from 37 cities, towns, villages, and districts in B.C.
After SILGA, the resolution would then pass to the Union of B.C. Municipalities for debate. If accepted, it would be taken and presented to the province to follow up on.
The resolution is just one avenue that the community of Oliver is exploring, including discussions with local doctors, the SOS DFP, Interior Health and the Ministry of Health.
“We’ll need to get the community behind it at the end of the day, when it comes to funding,” said Johanssen. “I believe, and I know a lot of people believe that these team-based clinics are the way to the future.”
Johanssen noted that there are many difficulties for municipalities that want to set up clinic space, pointing to the municipality of Summerland’s plans to incorporate clinic space in their planned aquatic and community Centre.
He pointed to the Community Charter’s restrictions on municipalities providing assistance to a business, which would prevent the town from providing support to either property owners or the doctors who are working in a place that the town doesn’t own.
“We would be looking at getting the community behind the effort, and working with the [South Okanagan] Medical Foundation for example, to do community fundraising,” said Johanssen. “That’s the other way to do it, through community fundraising.”
Interior Health is also seeking funding for Primary Care Networks in the South Okanagan Similkameen, although their request for $1.4 million from the South Okanagan Similkameen Hospital District was rejected at the Jan. 21 meeting.
SILGA will debate the resolutions and decide whether to accept them during their Annual General Meeting on April 28.
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