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Health Care Crisis Part 9: Officials to start meeting weekly

A task force to address the lack of health care professionals in Fort St. John is coming together, but so far the group has not decided when or where they will meet.

A task force to address the lack of health care professionals in Fort St. John is coming together, but so far the group has not decided when or where they will meet.

The group, which is tentatively dubbed the United Action Team, has pledged to meet every week until lasting solutions to the crisis can be found.

So far, the team includes leaders of the local grassroots group Concerned Citizens for Health Care, Peace River North MLA Pat Pimm and Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman.

Northern Health officials would also do their best to attend any meetings to which they were invited, “schedules permitting,” confirmed spokesperson Jonathon Dyck. Pimm has also said he wants doctors to attend the meetings.

Ackerman said at Tuesday’s council session that the meetings would occur until the crisis is resolved. “We will just keep chipping away at this thing until we find a solution to it,” she said.

Then on Thursday morning, Angela De Smit and Becky Temple – Northern Health’s chief operating officer and medical director for Northeast B.C., respectively – held a meeting in Fort St. John with Concerned Citizens, Pimm and the North Peace Division of Family Practice to update the group on new developments since the September town hall meeting.

That meeting drew more than 200 residents to the Senior’s Hall to talk about the health care crisis.

Separately at the meeting, this group also discussed the United Action Team’s weekly meetings, when and where they would take place and who would be involved.

Thursday’s meeting was intended as an information session for Concerned Citizens – the organization that has gathered more than 1,600 signatures on a petition urging action be taken to alleviate the region’s health care staff shortage.

At Thursday’s meeting, which was not an official meeting of the United Action Team, Pimm said there was no point in having strategy sessions if everyone wasn’t at the table.

“For me to meet with different groups and hear the same thing every time, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. “It’s OK to get a few things out on the table and get everyone’s feelings and their anger out, and get that piece out of the way, so we can get on with the meeting. Then we can go through and set up a proper group that has ... Northern Health on it.”

At the end of Thursday morning’s 90-minute meeting, the stakeholders proposed several action items for Northern Health to follow up with before the United Action Team’s next meeting.

First, they asked that Northern Health perform a cost analysis of the one-third stake it owns in the Fort St. John Medical Clinic. Second, it was asked to look into housing for staff. Third, it was asked to find time to come up with short- and long-term goals with the United Action Team, and finally it was asked to come up with short-term solutions.

Once up and running task force will attempt to come up with short-term solutions ranging from one month out to two or three years, said Pimm.

But Temple cautioned the group that short-term solutions should not overshadow the long-term.

“We do have to look at the short term, but we have to make sure that what we do in the short term doesn’t damage the long term, and that’s what so often happens in crises,” said Temple. “We run around and throw solutions at the problem, and the unintended consequences damage the long-term.”

She pointed out a suggestion from Concerned Citizens member Terry Isenbecker suggesting four to seven doctors could be recruited by January 2015, a goal that Temple said was unlikely.

“I have been recruiting doctors for a very long time. We will not have four to seven doctors by January 2015. To set that goal is a goal that we will fail. I think we can set a goal that says by summer 2015, we can have between three and seven doctors in Fort St. John. I think that’s realistic.”

De Smit added that four local physicians are scheduled to come to Fort St. John over the coming months, and there is a new community primary care clinic being planned, to open in December. The details of that clinic are still being worked out.

Brad Brain, one of the founders of Concerned Citizens, said in an interview with the Alaska Highway News that a large part of the United Action Team’s task right now has to do with building trust between local officials and a community that has grown angry at times recently over the lack of doctors.

Looking at that one category of health care professionals alone, the city has no more than 24 of the up to 38 doctors that Northern Health says are needed.

“What I hope we were able to do is assure the MLA and the mayor that we’re not out here for scalps – we’re just out to get doctors, and all the other professionals that are needed as well,” he said.

Brain maintained that getting various decision makers around the table is a necessary part to solving this problem. He’s optimistic, but also pragmatic: he, like tens of thousands in the Fort St. John area, has lost a family doctor despite living here for decades.

“The reality is ... I haven’t had a doctor in a year, my kids haven’t had a doctor in a year, and we’re not getting one any time soon. That being said, rather than just sitting around whining about it, we’re trying to figure out how we can change that.”