Quick action needed on doctor shortage


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Four months ago, the Progressive Conservative government announced its $200-million health human resource action plan to recruit, train and retain front line staff.

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Four months ago, the Progressive Conservative government announced its $200-million health human resource action plan to recruit, train and retain front line staff.

One of the key objectives of the initiative: to add 2,000 medical professionals to the system.

If the plan was supposed to include more doctors in hospitals, medical clinics and family physicians’ offices, Manitobans have yet to see evidence of any forward momentum.

In fact, the province’s physician shortage appears to be getting worse across the province, not better. Take, for example, Grace Hospital in Winnipeg, where a lack of overnight doctor coverage is putting patient safety at risk. The situation there is so severe, a group of 45 physicians has written an open letter to Health Minister Audrey Gordon pleading for help.

Ms. Gordon’s response to the letter is one Manitobans have heard many times before. She said her government is listening to physicians and taking steps to address their concerns.

“What I say to those doctors is our government is responding,” she said.

But is it? The Tories say they are listening, responding and “taking action” to fix a problem that was largely their own doing (when the province rushed to amalgamate acute care hospitals in Winnipeg between 2017 and 2019 without proper planning and consultation). Yet there appears to be no urgency in their resolve to do so.

“Manitobans, and all Canadians, expect their leaders to come together to solve issues that matter most to them,” Premier Heather Stefanson said in November, when her government launched the health human-resource action plan. “We are listening and we are taking action.”

Ms. Gordon told Manitobans at the time she consulted widely with front line staff and incorporated their ideas and concerns into the province’s action plan.

“We hear you and we are here for you,” the minister said.

Fast-forward four months, and doctors at Grace Hospital say their voices have not been heard, nor have their concerns been addressed. The situation is so bad, some physicians do not feel comfortable working at the hospital.

The problem of doctor shortages goes well beyond Winnipeg, of course. Last December, the Brandon Regional Health Centre faced what it called a “dire” shortage of hospitalist physicians at the start of 2023.

“Our hospitals have been understaffed for well over two years and given the increased number of unassigned patients as well as the acuity of the admissions, the situation has become dire,” wrote Dr. Michael Turabian, chief medical officer for Prairie Mountain Health, on Dec. 1. “Brandon Regional Health Centre is at an all-time low in terms of hospitalist members. Effective Jan. 1, we will be short three full-time positions, and it is possible that by the spring of 2023 we will require an additional four. This will have a serious impact on the services that can be provided.”

Even this week, according to the PMH website, the Brandon hospital is still on the hunt for two permanent hospitalists — not to mention the need for other specialists, such as anesthesiologists, one full-time and two part-time emergency room physicians, a pair of ophthalmologists, orthopedic surgeons, specialized psychiatrists, at least two urologists, a radiologist, and a cardiologist. And that’s just the need here in Brandon.

Small communities from Carberry, Souris and Killarney to Shoal Lake, Neepawa and Russell, to name a few, are still trying to attract doctors to their hospitals and ERs. And the situation does not appear to be improving.

To make matters worse, the province seems to have ignored the advice of Doctors Manitoba, which represents physicians across the province. Organization reps told media they were surprised last week when the provincial budget froze funding for physician recruitment and training (after the fund was cut twice in previous years and underspent every year since 2016).

The Tory government has not made good on its pledge to provide physicians with “practice stabilization support” as part of the health human-resource plan, Doctors Manitoba says.

Other provinces have provided physicians with additional resources to address rising costs from the COVID-19 pandemic and from inflation, but not Manitoba.

“Funding has been absolutely flat, and add to that a physician shortage, and it means there’s a lot of vacancies in clinics and empty exam rooms,” said Dr. Candace Bradshaw, the organization’s president. She called the province’s failure to offer immediate relief “devastating.”

Ms. Gordon responded last week with more empty platitudes, claiming her government is working with Doctors Manitoba and all health-care professionals to alleviate staffing shortages. Those words are meaningless without action.

Manitoba’s doctor shortage cannot be solved overnight. Indeed, it is part of a national shortage affecting all provinces. However, there are immediate steps the province could take, such as filling critical positions at Grace Hospital and providing physicians with financial support, that would help in the interim.

It is alarming those requests have seemingly fallen on deaf ears.

» Winnipeg Free Press and The Brandon Sun

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