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Headhunter hired to fill physician vacancies

Eastern health authority counting on results

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A rural health authority is enlisting the services of a Winnipeg headhunting firm to help fill physician vacancies in eastern Manitoba.

The Interlake-Eastern Regional Health Authority needs family doctors for Ashern, Lac du Bonnet, Pinawa, Pine Falls, Teulon and Whitemouth. In some towns, there is more than one opening.

The region often relies on international medical grads to fill vacancies, but those doctors usually leave as soon as they've completed their two-year or four-year service agreements and successfully write examinations that allow them to practise anywhere in Canada.

But now the Interlake-Eastern RHA, in partnership with Pinawa, Whitemouth and Lac du Bonnet, has hired Waterford Global Inc., to recruit three physicians to set down roots in the towns. The communities are helping the RHA offset some of its recruiting costs.

Manitoba Health is watching. The province faces a physician crunch in rural areas, and some communities call the shortage a "crisis."

John Stinson, chief executive officer of the Interlake-Eastern RHA, said the region is "in constant recruitment mode" for MDs. Retaining doctors is as big an issue as finding them in the first place.

"We've had success in getting people to come for the short term, but with the exception of a couple of doctors, no one has stayed," Stinson said of the international grads, so the authority's board of directors decided to "think outside the box."

The only physician in Whitemouth, located near Whiteshell Provincial Park, leaves for Winnipeg at the end of the month.

The only physician accepting new patients in the eastern part of the RHA will soon be on maternity leave. She's in Lac du Bonnet.

An official with Waterford Global expressed confidence his company will be able to recruit family doctors who will want to remain in the communities.

"We have a very robust health-care practice," said Fred Loewen, who owns the recruiting firm with Karen Swystun.

Loewen said the company has recruited a variety of health-care professionals, including physicians for rural Saskatchewan.

He said the firm is seeking doctors from Britain and other locations he declined to name for competitive reasons. It hopes to start filling the vacancies by January, although Loewen added that's a best-case scenario. There are factors it can't control, such as the speed of physician licensing and the pace of clearing immigration hurdles.

For residents of those communities, losing a doctor is a blow. Lorraine Henderson, who lives in Whitemouth, which is about to lose its only doctor, said government must offer more incentives to lure doctors to rural areas.

She's also concerned the area only receives part-time ambulance service, although plans are being made for restoration of round-the-clock service soon.

"We are in crisis mode and we need answers as soon as possible," she said in a letter to Premier Greg Selinger and Health Minister Erin Selby. "People are going to die if things don't change."

Conservative health critic Myrna Driedger said the province lacks a co-ordinated doctor recruitment and retention policy. While the physician count has continually risen, some 2,200 doctors have left the province in the last 15 years, she said.

This "revolving door of doctors," she said, is disconcerting and costly. "Why can't we find a better way to keep them here?"

A spokeswoman for the province said the government works with health authorities to share information on innovative ways to recruit doctors to rural and northern communities. Manitoba has expanded the medical school program, provided free medical school to students who promise to work in under-served areas and increased the number of medical residencies in rural Manitoba. "We'll be interested to see how the pilot program works and how other regions might be able to learn from this work," she said.

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