In 2009, Brooks was in crisis. The health centre in this community of 13,000 residents in Alberta’s southeast had lost its obstetric services. Lacking enough qualified physicians to run the department, expecting mothers had to drive over an hour to Medicine Hat, or two hours to Calgary. That’s a long journey if you’re in labour, and one that became even longer if the roads were covered in snow. The closure shook community leaders and caused a lot of angst in the region.
Barry Morishita, Mayor of Brooks, was one of those personally affected by the closure of obstetric services. His daughter and son-in-law were about to finish their university education, and were reconsidering whether or not they should return to Brooks to start their careers.
His daughter told him: “I’ve got to have a place where I can have access to health care. I want to start a family.”
With motivation like that, communities in the region joined together to find a solution. Representatives for the City of Brooks, the County of Newell, the Town of Bassano, and the villages of Duchess and Rosemary, met together as the Joint Services Committee, and decided they needed to be more proactive in the attraction of physicians.
Step one was to attract more doctors. RhPAP was there to help with toolkits and advice on how to do just that. Joint Services sought input from local physicians. The mayor and other committee members started hosting tours for prospective physicians to promote the many amenities in the area.
“We understand that we can’t all survive alone,” says Tom Rose, Deputy Mayor of Bassano. “We’re stronger together.”
Fast forward to today, the obstetrics department at the hospital is flourishing. Brooks physician, Dr. Ziets Hendriks, says it’s a safer environment for patients and physicians because patients have access to a physician who is well rested, and who is dedicated to obstetrical services.
“We actually have two physicians on staff for obstetrics every day now,” explains Dr. Hendriks. “One that does low risk and one that does high risk; there’s always a secondary physician that helps cover, where previously we didn’t have much back up.”
Dr. Erich van der Linde adds: “We currently have four physicians that have surgical capacity to do emergency C sections. We have four physicians trained to do GP-Anesthetic services.”
As a result, Brooks has grown from nine family physicians to a full complement of 15.
“We’ve got a great working relationship,” says Dr. van der Linde. “We support each other. I know in the middle of the night, if I have a problem with a patient, I can call friends to come and help me.”
Even the four medical clinics in Brooks have embraced a collaborative approach. In the past, each clinic hired individually. Now, they’ve formed a recruitment committee comprised of one physician from each clinic. “We work with the Mayor and the committee to do site visits with potential new physicians, make sure they have a vehicle, that there’s housing available for them, and that we showcase our community appropriately,” says Dr. van der Linde.
Dr. Anchene Harris visited Brooks in 2016 from South Africa and was impressed.
“I was so surprised by how welcoming Canadians were, from patients, to the community, to nursing
staff, to other physicians. They made us feel so welcome here,” says Anchene, who is now a family physician at the Centennial Health Clinic in Brooks. “When we got into town, and we just started working, we got this whole hamper [filled with gifts from city and county merchants]. I never expected something like that.”
With obstetric services back in place, Mayor Barry Morishita’s daughter and son-in-law did come back to Brooks to start their professional careers.
“The community needs those type of programs (obstetrics) to make it attractive. For all the professionals, for any job seekers, for people who are establishing industry here, health care and access to it is very important,” Morishita added.
Of course, retention of physicians is just as important as attraction. Joint Services thanks physicians for the work they do in the community on a regular basis with gift baskets and tickets to art events. Plus, they stay in touch.
“At least annually, we meet with the doctors in a group setting. We invite them to come out to supper with us so that we can communicate with them and get their opinions and ideas,” says Molly Douglass, Reeve for the County of Newell.
One area where some of the young physicians identified room for improvement was the tennis courts, which had fallen into disrepair. City officials didn’t think there was much interest in tennis anymore, but once they heard the doctors’ concerns, they resurfaced the courts. They soon discovered that not only were the physicians using the courts, but many other residents were also using them as well.
Dr. Anchene appreciates these efforts.
“I think it’s very important to have a committee in place that is recognized to be our voice if we have concerns, if we have troubles, or if there is something we want to see improved in the community.”
In recognition of their efforts to restore obstetrics services to Brooks, and the ongoing regional approach towards workforce attraction and retention, the Joint Services Committee, representing the City of Brooks and the County of Newell, has been selected as the recipient of the 2017 RhPAP Alberta Rural Community Physician Attraction and Retention Award.
“They stepped up and said ‘we need to take care of our doctors so that they can take care of us’. And it makes you feel appreciated,” adds Dr. Hendriks.
“It means a great deal that other parts of the province are starting to see what we do down here. It’s working,” says Molly Douglass. “Thank you to RhPAP for their involvement in all of our successes.”
The 2017 Rural Community award will be presented to the Joint Services Committee at the RhPAP 2018 Community Conference in Brooks on April 10-12, 2018.
Visit www.rhpap.ca for more details.
Article by Bobby Jones, RhPAP