Mackenzie, BC is one of the few rural towns that has enough family doctors. But soon it won’t be anymore.

Mackenzie, BC is one of the few rural communities in the province that has enough doctors to care for their patients.  (CBC - photo credit)

Mackenzie, BC is one of the few rural communities in the province that has enough doctors to care for their patients. (CBC – photo credit)

A family doctor to admit patients is hard to find in much of BC these days, especially in rural communities.

But Mackenzie, a small community of about 4,000 just north of Prince George, isn’t facing the same crisis.

The municipality, which has 6.5 general practitioners funded by the province, has eight. However, several work part-time and their total work adds up to about 5.7 doctors.

Physicians in the community say their workload is “manageable,” despite having slightly fewer than full-time family doctors.

One of the doctors is Dr. Ian Dobson, who traveled north from Vancouver nine years ago as part of the GP program, which brings doctors to rural communities for a limited time.

Dobson liked Mackenzie so much he stayed.

“I couldn’t be happier,” he said.

His colleague Dr. Dan Penman took the stage a little over 10 years ago to escape city life for a new adventure.

“It’s a beautiful area,” Penman said. “It’s a really nice community… very hospitable people here. I find her very grateful.”

Both doctors say the scenery, access to recreational activities and short commutes are important reasons they have stayed in the area.

Also, both have young families and enjoy raising children in a rural setting.

Chris Corday/CBC

Chris Corday/CBC

But they also say an alternative payment model has helped keep them and other doctors in Mackenzie.

Every single doctor in Mackenzie has alternative payment contracts. According to Penman, Northern Health owns and maintains the building where they work, which means the doctors can focus on medicine instead of running a business.

Most GPs in BC are independent contractors and operate their practices as a business, paying for overheads such as office space and staff, and medical equipment. Physicians and prospective physicians have been demanding similar opportunities for a long time.

A new payment model for doctors launched earlier this month that compensates doctors for the number of patients they see each day and the complexity of their needs. Physicians are paid for this extra time with patients.

Physicians are also paid for the time they spend reviewing lab results, consulting with other healthcare professionals, updating patient lists, and clinical administrative work.

Because they don’t have to worry about business and administrative duties, these 5.7 full-time equivalent doctors in Mackenzie are more than able to keep up with the city’s patient needs, Penman said.

Not quite perfect

Although the situation of GPs in Mackenzie is under control, the local hospital has had to close regularly due to staff shortages – particularly a shortage of nurses.

“Human resources is a big issue here,” Penman said.

“There’s an element of instability there, and a lot of doctors really don’t want to work in that kind of environment unless they have nurses or stability in terms of emergency care.”

Leaders have urged the province to increase resources for emergency medical services, including nurses and paramedics.

Mayor Joan Atkinson said a group of about 30 mayors from across BC are working on an appeal to the province for help addressing the overall health care shortage.

“We need to staff all of our hospitals and all of our paramedic units across the province.”

And while the community is in good shape now when it comes to family doctors, Penman said two of his part-time doctors plan to leave later this year.

He said that while his community and Northern Health have done a lot to recruit and retain doctors, those efforts must continue.

“The moment you take your foot off the accelerator and you lose two doctors, things destabilize,” he said.

“If you lose enough doctors it becomes too tiresome, people are really burned out.”


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