Originally published on October 26th, 6:00 am

A big discussion around Saskatchewan lately has been family doctors, and specifically people's access to them all around the province.

Pandemic burnout will always be a factor when looking at how physician numbers have been impacted over the past few years. That is a given, but doctors either retiring, or (even worse for the situation) leaving the province for another job, has been a growing trend that leaves a huge gap.

Still, efforts are being made by the government working on how to recruit more healthcare workers around all sides of the sector to the province:

A release from just a few days ago (October 21st) showed that their attempts have been working when it comes to their search for unlicensed, internationally educated Saskatchewan and/or Canadian residents who may qualify for future training or employment in the provincial health system.

They recently announced that since the early September announcement of the province’s Health Human Resources Action Plan, nearly 400 applications have been received in Saskatchewan.

“Saskatchewan is a place of great opportunity for everyone, including internationally trained health care professionals, and I am pleased with the large number of applications this call-out has generated,” Minister of Health Paul Merriman said through the recent release, “Our aggressive, nation-leading Action Plan to recruit, train, incentivize and retain health care workers will expand the workforce, stabilize health services across the province, and build a stronger health care system ready to meet the needs of our growing province.”

Another recent article using comments from Saskatchewan's Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Seniors, and Rural and Remote Health, Everett Hindley stated, "People told them they wanted more medical care, and they listened", as the Saskatchewan Health Authority is happy to have taken all the feedback they received from people and turn it into more than 175 full-time healthcare jobs aimed at addressing rural and remote healthcare needs in Saskatchewan.

After 24/7 emergency services were restored at the Biggar and District Health Centre at the start of the month, West Central Online spoke with Biggar-Sask Valley MLA Randy Weekes as the recruitment of several Registered Nurses helped spearhead the vital service getting back on track in the West Central community.

Weekes is very passionate about the situation, especially after seeing the return of emergency services within his constituency.

"First we just need to thank all of the healthcare providers. This was made possible by successfully recruiting four Registered Nurses, and on behalf of the community I would like to thank the RN's who recently started the Biggar Health Centre. They are the ones who made it possible to restore emergency hours to 24/7. The community is behind it of course, and it was a welcome announcement."

Saskatchewan's aggressive four-point plan to recruit, train, incentivize, and retain over 1,000 more health care workers to communities comes alongside the already mentioned incentivized opportunities above, leaving Weekes confident that their plans are in fact providing the tools necessary to get health care in Biggar back on track. 

Weekes talked about another interesting aspect when it comes to Saskatchewan's attempts to recruit healthcare staff.

"It also includes the community, and myself as an MLA. When we hear of someone who may be from Biggar that's graduating as a nurse, it's good to encourage them to come back home. That's very much a part of the whole thing."

Weekes mentioned how three of the four nurses were new graduates who were brought in with the expectation of being ready for the return of emergency services and talked about the fourth one is an example of just what the province is trying to do.

"One gentleman in particular moved back to Biggar. Semi-retired, and he has been encouraged to take up a lot more time working in the hospital. That's really helped us having someone with connections to the community, that is a Registered Nurse."

Retaining all sorts of healthcare workers is their overall plan, but looking back to doctors specifically, the West Central area is one part of the province that features some interesting discrepancies.

Local residents of each West Central town likely have their own opinions on the number of doctors stationed in their communities over the years. Doctors have come and gone too many times over the years in towns like Kindersley; while in a place like Biggar they actually have been more than set in that department, and things will likely remain that way for the years to come because they are entrenched in the community.

"The history of Biggar going back a number of years was that we were always short of physicians, like many communities. But the last number of years, we have had four physicians working," said Weekes, as one of those local doctors is on a current medical leave but was given a replacement for the year.

Weekes continued, saying "ironically, we have enough physicians. In recent years there has been the shortage of nursing staff, so that's interesting how things have changed around for Biggar."

With Biggar being a good example of what the province is looking to accomplish, Weekes talked about another specific initiative and the and benefits (and experience) it could provide.

"One program that will be coming available is for Physician Assistants. They wouldn't be a full-fledged physician, but they would be working under one, and they would do much of what a physician does," said Weekes about the program being incorporated by the province.

Weekes says that bringing in assistants is something a community that struggles to retain doctors should be looking at. That's something that could improve the situation, and work together with some of the supports already in place. When Weekes was formerly the Minister of Rural Remote and Heath for Saskatchewan, he made a trip out east to speak with Nova Scotia health officials about the formation of Collaborative Emergency Centres (CEC).

"We have I think four operating in Saskatchewan to this date," said Weekes, with the nearest West Central facility actually being the first one constructed up in Maidstone, "That's where they have a nurse, and an emergency paramedic working nights when a physician isn't available. They are work in conjunction with physicians across the province, as if an emergency comes in, they are able to talk to the emergency position worker if they needed help in dealing with that particular emergency."

Those two strategies mentioned above are great ways to make sure 24/7 Emergency Services stay open. It helps with the replacement of otherwise lost services to an area, and the prevention of physician burnout which was one of the main problems in the first place.

Weekes talked about the importance of Collaborative Emergency Centre's accomplishing just that.

"It takes the pressure off the physician," said Weekes, as one of the drawbacks of being a physician is the potential of being on call for 24 hours a day, "If they are on call 24/7, that's just not manageable. That's just a quality-of-life issue and is one of the reasons physicians don't want to stay, because of the stress of being on-call all the time. With the Collaborative Emergency Centres, that takes the onus off them so they could work their normal hours, but there still be emergency services in the hospital and community," he said about the provincially connected support team.

While all of these steps are in place to help with recruitment and retainment across Saskatchewan, some residents still might be hesitant to believe it will work after feeling the sting of local healthcare professionals leaving over the years. The story above from August of 2020 detailed an Eston residents' gripe with the need for a consistent Physician in the West Central town. One quote stated, "It doesn't work very well when you have physicians coming in and out, and consistency is key to the treatment of most things".

That comment is one that likely resonates with many across West Central. People who have all too often found a doctor they connected with, only to be given the news that the physician would be moving on from their community.

Local people involved in these recruiting efforts shouldn't stop now according to Weekes, as the community can play their part when it comes to working on a solution for the future to fix that exact problem.

"There is no doubt about that. The community, your MLA in the area, municipal leaders, they all have to work together on recruitment and retention of all health care professionals. Whether they be nurses or physicians. Certainly, like I say if there is a personal connection to bring a healthcare professional to the community, that's just so important, absolutely."

Nurses, doctors, and all kinds of healthcare professionals are needed in Saskatchewan. The post above shows yet another facet of the sector that is looking for potential employees. As stated above hundreds of newly created jobs are waiting to be filled, and only time will tell how Saskatchewan's healthcare advertisement plan goes.

One thing that is for sure, is the province's plan to Recruit, Train, Incentivize, and Retain healthcare workers around these important spots that need to be filled around Saskatchewan's healthcare facilities.