The emergency-room closure crisis at the South Okanagan General Hospital (SOGH) in Oliver looks to be easing following an announcement by the province of a permanent funding commitment to help stabilize physician coverage.
A provincial commitment of $7.5 million covers the communities of Merritt, Oliver/Osoyoos, Salmon Arm and surrounding communities and marks a move away from the “fee for service” model to the Alternative Payment Plan (APP) scheme.
“BC, like all jurisdictions in Canada, is facing recruitment and retention challenges that were exacerbated by the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing toxic-drug crisis and the rising number of patients with complex health-care needs, and we know that these challenges are more prominent in rural and remote communities,” said Adrian Dix, Minister of Health.
“That is why we are taking immediate actions to bolster the recruitment of more physicians for our patients and their care teams.”
The health ministry said the funding is part of short-, medium- and long-term efforts to stabilize emergency-department services in rural and remote communities.
The commitment was approved on Sept. 29, 2023, for the South Okanagan General Hospital in Oliver. Interior Health says it it is working with local physicians on the three service contracts for emergency services at these hospitals.
The dire situation at SOGH which repeatedly saw the emergency room closed, often at night and more recently on weekends, largely stemmed from the fact that the shortfall in doctors locally was being picked up by doctors doing extra shifts out of Penticton.
And while these doctors did extra duty they were paid less than what they were paid for their regular work in Penticton. This is part of the aim of the APP which offers an alternative to the traditional “Fee for Service” model.
“We’re pleased to be moving forward with new compensation models for physicians in our rural communities,” said Susan Brown, president and CEO, Interior Health.
“This is another step forward to stabilizing health services for rural residents as it will support our recruitment efforts going forward.”
The new contracts are aimed at bolstering the Province’s efforts to recruit more physicians in rural communities as they will compensate them for their time spent at the hospital caring for patients with complex and time-intensive needs.
This departs from the fee-for-service payment model under which physicians are paid based primarily on the number of patients they see in a day.
“With these service contracts, all patients and nurses will benefit from more regular on-site physician presence, which will help emergency rooms in these hospitals remain open,” the health ministry said.
The new service contracts will be implemented in accordance with the terms of the physician master agreement between the Province and Doctors of BC, the ministry said.
“The agreement drives continued collaboration by the Ministry of Health, physicians, Doctors of BC and regional health authorities to achieve key priorities that improve health care, including gender equity, Indigenous reconciliation and workplace safety. All of this aims to better support doctors as they care for their patients.”
Roly Russell, MLA for Boundary-Similkameen hailed the investment in rural health saying it will help stabilize emergency-department services due to staffing shortages.
“Our acute-care centres are essential for ensuring residents get the care they need, when they need it, and close to home.
“This new service contract with physicians, along with the multitude of other current actions, will support our health-care professionals and build a stronger foundation for a more reliable and stronger rural health-care system.”
Dix added that the investment will help ensure stable access to emergency care, and acknowledged there is more to do. “Through our Health Human Resources Strategy, we are also committed to train, recruit and retain more people into our workforce, including providing incentives to attract physicians working in rural communities such as Merritt, Salmon Arm and Oliver.”
The provincial commitment for the Nicola Valley Hospital and Health Centre in Merritt, and the Shuswap Lake General Hospital in Salmon Arm was approved on Oct. 10, 2023.