Is there a doctor in the house?
Recruiting and keeping doctors and nurses still a serious problem for the NWT

Darren Campbell
Northern News Services

NNSL (Sep 21/98) - It's a perennial problem.

Year after year, health centres and hospitals in the Northwest Territories have to go out and recruit doctors and nurses to work here.

It's never an easy task, as any health official knows.

"The problem of turnover is ongoing," said Dr. David Butcher, president of the NWT Medical Association. "I don't think it's becoming harder (to recruit doctors). But it hasn't become any easier, lets put it that way."

The president of the NWT Registered Nurses Association, Louise MacRae, said the challenge of recruiting and keeping nurses is no easier.

"I'd say it is getting worse," said MacRae.

Those in the know list several reasons as to why it's hard to recruit and keep doctors and nurses.

Dr. Butcher said the cost to doctors of setting up a practice in the NWT is higher compared to southern Canada. Yet fee schedules, set by the GNWT, aren't high enough to offset the increased costs.

There is also more restrictions now on doctors who want to take some time off from their practice and do post-graduate work. That fact discourages some from coming North. Also, current training at medical schools is generally specialized, whereas practitioners in the NWT need to have broader medical knowledge.

The NWT is also facing a numbers problems. Brent Woodford, chief executive officer of the Fort Smith Health and Social Services Board, said there is a shortage of doctors and nurses that NWT health centres can choose from.

Woodford said 1,200 medical students graduate in Canada every year. Only about 300 are interested in going anywhere but the large Canadian centres and the United States. That leaves every hospital outside of Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary fighting over the same 300 doctors.

And he said by the year 2003 there will be a shortage of nurses in Canada. This is because more nursing jobs are opening up again in Alberta and Ontario, while nursing schools have reduced enrolments in recent years.

"With southern facilities opening up more (jobs), recruiting will be difficult," said Woodford.

While external factors play a big role in recruiting and keeping health professionals, the heavy workload plays a big part as well.

Woodford said doctors and nurses tend to get burned out because of the high demands put on them in the NWT -- especially in smaller communities like Tuktoyaktuk or Norman Wells.

In the smaller communities where there may be only two doctors and four or five nurses, they are on call all the time and that wears on them. MacRae said as the benefits to nurses and doctors continue to erode in the NWT, it is not long before they look towards southern Canada.

"The stress of the job is high," said MacRae. "And as time goes on we're seeing benefits taken away. Nurses aren't getting as much back from their job as they used to."

So what needs to change to get more doctors and nurses to move to the NWT and stay? MacRae believes work conditions and benefits have to improve.

Dr. Butcher said NWT health boards also have to get more aggressive in attracting doctors and nurses to come to the North.

"All over rural Canada there is a shortage of physicians, so we're facing extreme competition," said Butcher. "We have to pick up the pace on how we market ourselves."

Along those lines, Butcher said the medical association is working with the territorial government on a recruiting and retention scheme. They are also planning on marketing more aggressively at the university level and trying to get more Northerners into health programs like nursing.

While more government spending on health and social services would also help, Woodford said that won't solve the NWT's problem.

"Some say throw more money at the problem and that will solve it," said Woodford. "Money isn't always the issue. It really is quality of life. If you're on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it's not long before you're looking elsewhere."