Rodeo weekend is big in Sundre. People from all around this community, located just over an hour northwest of Calgary, come out in big numbers to support it.
The Sundre Health Professional Attraction and Retention Committee shares something in common with the brave cowboys who ride bucking bulls and broncs at the Sundre Race and Rodeo Grounds.
SHPARC, as they’re also known, hang in there when the going gets rough.
The spark for this committee came in 2011, when it was discovered that many of Sundre’s nine physicians were leaving. Doctors Hal Irvine and Rob Warren stepped up to tackle the problem.
Gerald Ingeveld was at that initial meeting.
“They said in the next twelve months, seven of our nine doctors will be gone. Then they let it sit there for a while so there was this uncomfortable silence. And we went ‘holy smokes, what are we going to do?’ Well, we better get some doctors,” Ingeveld recalls.
[The committee has] been absolutely phenomenal and I’m absolutely thrilled that [they] are finally being recognized for the work that [they] have done.
– Dr. Vesta Michelle Warren
At this point RhPAP became involved, providing guidance, and introducing the new committee to the work of established rural attraction and retention committees.
“RhPAP was instrumental in our beginnings,” reflects former SHPARC chair, and current AHS Board Member, Heidi Overguard. “They gave us an outline of what we needed to look for, like a survey that we could ask potential candidates ahead of time.”
Back in 2011, many other rural communities in Alberta were short of physicians. Competition for physicians was fierce.
“The most important thing was we had to be sneaky,” Ingeveld mentions mischievously. “We had to know a lot about the people that we were bringing out.”
The committee would ask “pre-tour questions,” ranging from likes and interests, to dietary needs, and requirements for their children.
“And then we would sit down in a little group and we would say ‘Aha’! They like to do this. They like to do that.’ We had some docs, we knew they had dogs, so we made sure when they came for their tour that they got a good look at our trail system,” Ingeveld adds.
The committee also reached out to the spouse, to make sure that they were feeling comfortable as well.
It worked. Of the 69 physicians that were recruited from outside Alberta that year, ten per cent of them came to Sundre. Amazing results.
“We had attracted all these new physicians,” Ms. Overguard recalled. “They were excited to be here.”
However, getting the physicians and their families to Sundre was only the beginning.
What an honour it is to serve this community.
– Gerald Ingeveld
When a new physician was hired, SHPARC worked with a local realtor to find them housing, and as committee member, Gerri Greschner, recalls:
“The fridge was full and some meals prepped so all they had to do was take things out of the freezer and re-heat, because those first few days can be very hectic when you are trying to get established.”
Dr. Mark Wylie was one of the physicians they recruited.
“The one thing I really liked about SHPARC, other than the fact that they were really, really welcoming and good at orientating you to resources in the community, they’ve been very good even on a regular basis of showing their appreciation for the health professionals in the community,” Dr. Wylie explained.
Since 2011, the number of physicians practising here has expanded from nine to 15.
Many of the latest arrivals were first introduced to Sundre as part of their residency program.
The new arrivals, like Dr. Anthony Wilmott, and wife, Katie, liked what they saw.
“So, it was that kind of nice balance of great place to practise medicine as well as a really nice place to raise a family that made it so appealing that we decided to come here,” said Dr. Willmot:
“There’s a pool we could swim at,” Katie Willmot added. “There’s so many things that the girls and I could do, so that when Anthony was working, it felt like we were part of a community.”
Within a few years, Sundre was “doctored up.”
“We have successfully recruited and now the doctors have taken on that role and they’re looking after recruiting their own doctors which is great,” Ms. Greschner explained.
With the first ride over, ShPARC is getting on another horse – recruiting other health professionals to Sundre.
I think if you want to have success you really have to care about your community. You truly have to have a passion for what you are doing.
– Heidi Overguard
The challenge now, according to Overguard, is to attract the right nurses who are going to love this place the way they do.
To facilitate this attraction, SHPARC recently hosted an RhPAP-sponsored skills weekend for nursing students from Red Deer College.
New nurses coming to practise in Sundre get the same special treatment that new physicians do, with RN and Clinical Nurse Educator, Chantal Crawford there to ease the transition.
“As an RN, I try to help them in the hospital. Mentor them. Be a leader there for them,” Crawford adds.
The committee continues to make retention of health professionals a high priority. Each year, SHPARC hosts a pancake appreciation breakfast at the hospital, and all Sundre health professionals are invited. It’s just one of many appreciation events SHPARC puts on during the year.
SHPARC also celebrates nursing week by giving nurses gift hampers and handing out coffee cards to all staff at the hospital. In December, they extend their appreciation to pharmacies, the RCMP, EMS, and the fire department.
The committee has also taken on a role outside of health professional attraction and retention, helping to lead the fight to keep health facilities open in the community.
“One of the best things of this committee is we’re never scared of a challenge,” added Ms. Crawford.
Such was the case in 2016, when the provincial government was contemplating closing the 15-bed long-term care wing at Sundre Hospital.
“If you can explain to someone who loves their community that pioneers of their community have to leave town because there isn’t care for them. That just broke our hearts,” Mr. Ingeveld recalled.
I mean, realistically, it’s an unpaid group of individuals, who are, out of the kindness of their hearts and their concern for the community,… going out of their way to step up.
– Dr. Mark Wylie
The committee joined with health professionals and the community to lobby the provincial government to change their mind.
In the end, five long-term care beds were retained, four were converted to restorative care, and one to acute care.
Sundre Mayor, Terry Leslie, commends the amazing work of SHPARC.
“These are incredible people. These are people that step up, think beyond what a problem might be, and think immediately to the opportunity that might present itself.”
A big tip of the hat to the Sundre Health Professional Attraction and Retention Committee, recipients of the 2019 RhPAP Rhapsody Community Award.
May the long ride continue.
- Bobby Jones