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Committees That Care: Attracting and Retaining Healthcare Professionals in the North

Healthcare delivery is an issue affecting all Canadians, but nowhere is the situation more concerning than in remote, northern areas.

According to the University of Calgary’s Centre for Health Policy (2023), rural Albertans make up 22% of the Alberta population but are only served by 7% of the province’s physicians.

This disparity continues to widen, which fuels what many officials have termed, “The Rural Health Crisis.”

The consensus is there are not enough doctors and skilled healthcare professionals to meet demand, especially in many northern communities such as those in Northwestern Alberta. Finding a family doctor or adequate care can be difficult.

Thankfully, Northwestern Alberta has several committees all working hard to help narrow this gap. It’s a kaleidoscope of community members coming together with one agenda: to attract and retain more healthcare providers to the region.

Local healthcare retention and attraction committees include the Grimshaw Regional Healthcare Attraction and Retention Committee (GRHARC), the Peace Regional Healthcare Attraction and Retention Committee (PRHARC), and the Fairview Economic Development Committee.

Additionally, the Mackenzie Region’s True North Health Advisory Council has boundaries which extend from Indian Cabins in the north, Rainbow Lake in the west, Garden River in the east and Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement in the south.

Stacey Messner, GRHARC Chair and Grimshaw Deputy Mayor

“We know how vital health professionals are in our community, and we recognize there are many layers to consider when trying to attract more of them,” said Stacey Messner, GRHARC Chair and Grimshaw Deputy Mayor.

These committees work with representatives from Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the Rural Health Professions Action Plan (RhPAP), which was established in 1991 by the Government of Alberta to provide resources and support for organizations working to bring more healthcare professionals north.

To encourage these medical professionals, there are many financial incentives, scholarships and programs like the RESIDE program through RhPAP, which offers up to $120,000 for physicians willing to give three years of service to a rural community in Alberta.

Grimshaw’s committee includes local physicians, AHS’s physicians and talent acquisition recruiters, and members from RhPAP, the Lac Cardinal Economic Development Board, the Town of Grimshaw, the Village of Berwyn, the MD of Peace and the County of Northern Lights.

“Everyone is invested in the benefits of bringing more healthcare providers to their communities,” said Messner.

Jenna Armstrong, Economic Development Coordinator, Town of Fairview

When Fairview found itself with a lack of physiotherapy care, the Town’s Economic Development Committee developed and funded a business plan. Next, they approached potentially-interested parties to show them how viable and beneficial opening a practice in Fairview could be.

“Our business plan attracted multiple physiotherapists to consider starting a business in our town,” said Jenna Armstrong, the Town of Fairview’s Economic Development Coordinator. “They found it very helpful to understand how a physio business in Fairview could be successful.”

Peace River’s committee includes local physicians, an EMT representative, and members from AHS, RhPAP, the Sunrise Medical Clinic, the Peace River Health Centre, the Town of Peace River, Village of Nampa, Northern Sunrise County, County of Northern Lights, MD of Peace and members from the general public.

“The original focus of the committee was to attract and retain doctors in the Peace River area,” said Elaine Manzer, Chair of the PRHARC and Peace River Mayor. “As our committee and RhPAP have evolved, we’re now paying more attention to orienting healthcare personnel to the community to help them form connections here.”

Elaine Manzer, Chair of the PRHARC and Peace River Mayor

In addition to retention, there has also been more of a focus on attracting a wider range of healthcare providers including nurses, pharmacists, radiologic technicians, physiotherapists, paramedics and mental health professionals to name a few.

RhPAP’s five-year strategy is designed to be supportive in this regard. In addition to providing a platform of collaboration and communication between organizations, RhPAP provides various types of healthcare professionals with innovative programming specific to the needs of small communities.

“RhPAP is a huge help, and they also host an annal conference,” said Messner. “It’s the most organized and effective conference I have ever attended. It’s a great opportunity to hear from all the communities impacted, and the information and networking is invaluable.”

In Fairview, their efforts to attract a physiotherapist practice paid off in 2023 when Dinu Pillai and Sarath Pammidi opened Peace Country Physiotherapy in town. Representatives from the Town of Fairview have plans for showcasing the region and enticing more medical professionals to move to the area.

“I believe we all need to be ambassadors for the North and show all the positive reasons to move here,” said Armstrong.

Sarath Pammidi & Dinu Pillai, Owners of Peace Country Physiotherapy in Fairview

To help retain healthcare workers, Peace River’s committee, PRHARC, ensures new medical staff, prospective doctors and their families are introduced to local amenities such as schools, housing and recreational opportunities.

“We depend upon the medical staff to do the medical orientation, mentoring and relationship building among the new staff, but our committee aims to ease the move to Peace River for all new healthcare workers,” said Manzer.

And, with the help of the PRHARC, a Peace River physician recently received provincial recognition.

“We have successfully gained provincial recognition with several RhPAP Rhapsody nominations that resulted in awards,” said Manzer. “The most recent being the 2022 Rhapsody Physician Award for Dr. Karen Lundgard.”

In Grimshaw, they ensure the medical providers in the community know they are valued.

“We organized the pancake breakfast for Nurse Appreciation Week and nominated our Grimshaw/Berwyn District Community Emergency Team for the 2023 RhPAP Rhapsody Healthcare Heroes Award,” said Messner. “We also organized a special dinner and awards ceremony in Grimshaw to celebrate them.”

Messner and her team also launched a scholarship program to entice local students to enroll in medical programs. It’s part of their plan to attract people who were raised in the area and who have existing family and support in the North.

If you know someone receiving an education in a medical field or a recent medical graduate, please feel free to share information about these programs and incentives.

By Kelly Pippin | Photography submitted

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