BANFF – Space has been secured on the second floor of Banff’s public health building for a community medical clinic.
The move is part of an ongoing campaign to recruit and retain doctors in order to provide continuous and quality care for patients following an exodus of family physicians from the Bow Valley who struggled with burnout, particularly in the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising overhead and rent costs.
Margie Smith, site administrator for Banff Mineral Springs Hospital, said the Covenant Health hospital and Alberta Health Services came to an agreement for space at the health unit to accommodate a community clinic that would house family physicians and other healthcare providers.
“It is exciting,” said Smith at a May 23 council meeting, noting support letters from the Town of Banff, Improvement District No. 9 and local family doctors have been attached to a grant application to Covenant Health Foundation for funds to renovate the space on the second floor of Lynx Street health unit.
“This is my big dream … with family physicians we would also have a social worker, detox navigator, pieces in play that would help the physicians like nurse practitioners, physician assistants to share that workload, but all under the umbrella of the person getting the right provider that they need to see.
“We’re super hopeful with the letters of support written they’ll see how important this is for our community … we’re hopeful we’ll find out probably in June if we actually get the grant – so stay tuned.”
Banff clinics were unable to recruit family doctors for about one-and-a-half years, with seven family physicians having left the Bow Valley in 2021 and 2022. In addition, no family physicians were accepting new patients.
Doctors leaving clinics created a heavier workload and in turn increased costs for the remaining physicians who were responsible for the rising overhead costs, all while the fee structure mandated by the provincial government remained unchanged.
Family physicians are also essential to hospital operations, including long-term care and acute care and providing on-call coverage, but it was tough to recruit locums – a medical professional who substitutes for a practice's regular doctor for a period of time – because of a lack of housing and costs.
Dr. Mette Hoegh-Petersen, a family physician at Bear Street Family Physicians in Banff, said attraction and retention of healthcare providers has been a growing issue in the Bow Valley.
“We reached a breaking point, I think, last year both in Banff and in Canmore. There was just no family docs out there that we could recruit,” she said, noting part of that was due to increasing overhead costs at clinics.
“We are run like a small business. We pay all the overhead and costs of having the clinics in addition to the cost of living in the Bow Valley. It’s hard to bring anyone in as everyone knows it’s expensive to come here.”
To combat the emerging doctor shortage that other Alberta communities had already begun to face in years previous, a committee was formed in Banff to look at retention and recruitment of physicians to the community.
The first in the Calgary health zone, two international medical graduates (IMG) were secured for Banff after Covenant Health Medical Affairs advocated Alberta Health Services for two $50,000 scholarships that require a five-year commitment.
Hoegh-Petersen said one IMG has completed all of her exams and is now waiting on a three-month assessment demanded by The College of Physicians & Surgeons of Alberta before starting work in the community.
“It’s a bit of a process, but the flip-side is they have to sign a five-year return of service to our community and so we know that we will get good continuity of care for a good period of time so we feel it’s worthwhile,” said Hoegh-Petersen who is a member of the retention and recruitment committee.
“We’re having ongoing interviews for a second international medical graduate, and we have lots and lots of applicants, so we are quite hopeful that we will get something out of this, and we have ongoing recruiting of Canadian family physicians as well.”
On top of burnout among family physicians locally and nationally, Hoegh-Petersen said there are fewer Canadian medical students wanting to go into family medicine, noting there were vacant student spots in Calgary this year.
“Even if you do complete your family medicine residency, a lot of those people don’t actually end up as family docs; they have other options. They can be emerg docs, sports medicine, all sorts of other things," she said.
The committee has also focused on finding short-term accommodation to attract locums.
Short-term accommodation was secured at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity for locums, but Hoegh-Petersen said ongoing work is needed to secure sustainable short-term housing for both locum coverage and for new physicians and their families as they get established in the community.
“To be able to recruit Canadian family physicians, it’s hugely important that we can get locums and we have accommodation,” she said.
Mineral Springs Hospital and local doctors have also been looking at different models of care as part of a plan to retain and recruit physicians.
Beginning June 1, a weekly on-call rotation pilot project to cover acute care patients and long-term care residents begins at the hospital.
While on-call, the rostered physician will be the single point of contact for repatriation of patients to Mineral Springs Hospital from other hospitals and to admit patients who don’t have a family doctor through the emergency department.
“Instead of each family doc wearing multiple hats, trying to be in many places on the same day, we’ve divided up the workload to help to reduce our burnout and to provide the stability and continuity of care for patients,” said Hoegh-Petersen.
Coun. Chip Olver thanked the committee for all of its work.
“It was really a concern in the community when so many physicians were leaving and none were coming in,” she said.
“It’s not only our own story but we know it’s across the province and across Canada, but the action you have taken has helped make a difference here.”
Coun. Ted Christensen failed in his attempt to convince council to explore using lands on Cave Avenue to build housing for medical professionals in Banff, with costs to be covered by the municipality and other partners, including Parks Canada.
Council had earlier decided against building a 30-unit affordable rental development after investigation revealed steep slopes and instability, groundwater, high costs of construction, and a predicted $1.2 million annual operating deficit deemed the project unviable.
“I think specific-built housing is super vital to the community because it’s a core element of our community and safety in our community,” said Christensen, getting support only from Coun. Hugh Pettigrew.
“These are caregivers in our community that we’re short of, and we need to encourage them to come here, and one of the ways we can encourage them to come is to help them with housing.”
Mayor Corrie DiManno said she was philosophically against building housing for one specific demographic, noting that would send a “very disheartening message” if one career type was prioritized over another.
“If I was a family in this town who worked in the service industry and was dying to get into a home in Banff Housing Corp. and I saw a headline that said ‘council moving forward on providing affordable housing for doctors who don’t live here yet’, that would be extremely hurtful,” she said.
“Philosophically, I don’t want to go down the road where we are putting certain careers over others. Everyone is integral to this community, we learned that during the pandemic, our grocery storekeepers, our janitorial staff were immensely crucial to keeping our community safe and open to the world.”