What are the implications if Lethbridge fails to attract new Doctors to the city? And what can City Council do about it?
This is a complex issue, so let's break it down.
Why are doctors leaving? - There are many reasons medical professionals may choose to leave a community and there are a lot of factors for Doctors to stop practicing. I don't pretend to know the ins and outs of every single person's decision-making process, but there are some general trends that are concerning and are worth noting. The first big issue is the Province. The continued war on medical professionals throughout the pandemic has many of our front-line carers burnt out, frustrated, feeling under-appreciated, and is, frankly, shady. The mishandling of the pandemic by the Province, ripping up doctors contracts, changing rural billing (somehow Lethbridge, a city of 100,000 residents, is considered rural [whut?]), and an ongoing demonization of frontline healthcare workers: it isn't really a wonder that our healthcare staff are feeling underappreciated and moving elsewhere. Active recruiting from other jurisdictions including BC, Saskatchewan, and the maritime provinces is drawing our qualified physicians away for proverbial greener pastures. And throughout all of this: the City has been mute.
Technically, this topic is out of jurisdiction for Councils so the silence on the part of the City is expected. However, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and I believe there are some things the City could do to promote Doctor retention and recruitment in the City. But before we get there: what are the implications if this crisis continues to be unsolved?
If we don't fix the problem: Services abandoning a city are a kind of proverbial "canary-in-the-coal-mine". Without easy and equitable access to medical help because of a lack of availability, the City can expect to see fewer people moving to Lethbridge to settle. Access to healthcare is a leading factor in why families will choose to move to a new place, and Lethbridge's lack of access is going to have long-term consequences to City development and growth. This should be a major concern for all City Council candidates, and, because of the jurisdiction issues, it's going to take some innovative thinking to tackle the problem.
In the short-term, Lethbridge Citizens without access to a family doctor or walk-in clinic will need to rely solely on Emergency Room access for their basic healthcare needs. This is disastrous for an already over-burdened ER, particularly in the midst of a pandemic. Clogging up our Emergency Room and Hospital with non-emergency issues will result in longer wait times for services as nurses struggle to triage cases.
In the long-term, we can expect to see fewer families moving to Lethbridge, slowing our growth rate, and creating large gaps in our economy. Our housing market is at risk of stalling out, and property values will plummet as a lack of access to needed medical services has a dramatic effect on our community. This means many folks, whose life savings are tied up in their property, could be facing very strenuous financial times. It will also mean families may choose to move away from Lethbridge, resulting in an even further drain of resources such as labour and education.
Lethbridge is used to the fact that we've been a growing city (steadily growing by 1.5-2% every year) for several decades now. This is the first sign this trend may be slowing, or even reversing, which is definitely something for concern.
So, what can we do? As mentioned above (repeatedly, sorry), recruitment of physicians to our City is generally NOT the purview of Council or City Administration, but that doesn't mean there's nothing we can do about it.
Pillar One: Advocacy. The City needs to take a pro-active role in advocating to the Provincial Government for Doctor Recruitment to Lethbridge. Obviously, with our current government, this is a bit of a problem. Still: the more the City communicates and works with the Province, the better. The City has an opportunity to work closely with the Chinook Primary Care Network to find out why the Doctors are leaving the city, and what we can do to reverse the trend.
Pillar Two: Let's Cut A Deal. Other jurisdictions around the world have also faced the issue of services disappearing from their communities. So how did they handle it? Some places have offered property tax incentives to clinics, allowing for a reduction in operating costs for local family physicians. Others have gone so far as to offer free housing for Doctors, or a reduced residential property tax rate to encourage them to stay here. There are lots of options, and since Doctor care is a NEED, not a want, there has to be a way to make living in Lethbridge attractive to our primary care givers.
Pillar Three: Shifting Culture, Creating Community. We know that Lethbridge is struggling right now with various issues impacting our community. The hostility created by fractured populations is enough to drive people away from Lethbridge, as they seek more wholesome and caring communities to live and raise families in. We've all noticed it: the community is heavily divided along ideological lines and is in desperate need for unifying leadership. This means counting on our civic and community leaders to bring people together, rather than drive them apart. As a community builder, I've worked with many different people to build community from grass-roots and create a welcoming space for everyone. These types of leadership skills, I think, are going to be very important in the coming years as Lethbridge struggles to thrive.
Unfortunately, I don't have all the answers. But I do want to assure you I am reaching out to the healthcare community to find out why Doctors are abandoning the City, and to see if there is anything we can do to stem the exodus. Maintaining high quality of life and care in Lethbridge must be a paramount concern to City Leaders.