Examining the need for better care

Dr. Leon Bekker (left) of the Loon Lake Health Centre and Special Care Home chats with Randy Weekes, provincial minister responsible for rural and remote health, during Weekes’ visit to the facility Sept. 3.

Dr. Leon Bekker (left) of the Loon Lake Health Centre and Special Care Home chats with Randy Weekes, provincial minister responsible for rural and remote health, Sept. 3.

by Phil Ambroziak

The best medicine the province could prescribe to ensure improved health care for rural communities in the North is the kind that brings with it more doctors.

At least that’s the opinion of Village of Loon Lake officials who recently had an opportunity to discuss their concerns with Randy Weekes, the provincial minister responsible for rural and remote health. Weekes was in the community Sept. 3 to tour the Loon Lake Health Centre and Special Care Home.

“It’s not a hospital – we don’t have an emergency department, so it’s more of a long-term care facility and a health unit where people can book an appointment to see the doctor,” explained Loon Lake mayor Larry Heon. “We used to be a full hospital, but that was close to a decade ago. We also don’t have any first responders left. One of the biggest concerns people around here have is how long it would take for an ambulance to arrive from St. Walburg if someone was having a heart attack or some other major crisis.”

Heon went on to say the main reason the facility no longer houses an emergency room is because of an ongoing shortage of doctors. The only doctor currently on staff in Loon Lake is Dr. Leon Bekker, but Heon said more physicians or nurse practitioners are needed to properly serve Loon Lake and the surrounding area.

“People from Makwa Sahgaiehcan and Ministikwan First Nations also come through here – it’s a very busy clinic,” he said. “When you have only one doctor doing a full day shift, to have them attempt to handle emergencies overnight would be too much. It would burn them out.”

Weekes embraced Heon’s opinion, describing Loon Lake as an active community that puts a lot of thought into the future. He also noted there could be a number of reasons why more doctors are reluctant to work in rural or remote communities.

“Demographically, the baby boomers are going to start retiring soon so it becomes a matter of replenishment,” Weekes said. “Remoteness is certainly an issue, as it can be quite a culture shock for someone who has never lived in a small, rural community before.”

Bekker agreed, stating many doctors he knows have opted to work in rural communities in Alberta and other provinces because of an added financial bonus they receive for choosing to work away from a major centre.

“We’re always competing with other provinces,” Bekker said. “I’ve talked to a lot of doctors who’ve left Saskatchewan because the money just wasn’t enough, but the truth is there are so many factors.”

Bekker, who has worked in Loon Lake for the past 10 years, said there are four main things doctors take into account when deciding where they would like to offer their services. These include job satisfaction, compensation, free time and whether or not they personally like the community they’d be calling home.

“You have to be satisfied with where you’re living, or else you could be making a half-million dollars and it still wouldn’t add up for you,” he remarked. “We’ve been grappling with this for many years.”

Meanwhile, Weekes highlighted the province’s Rural Physician Incentive program, which was introduced earlier this year in an effort to attract more recently graduated doctors to rural Saskatchewan communities. The program provides $120,000 in funding over five years to recent medical graduates who establish practice in rural communities of 10,000 or less. Premier Brad Wall announced the program at the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities annual convention in Saskatoon this past spring.

According to reports, more than 2,000 physicians are currently working in the province – a 15 per cent increase since 2008.

Weekes’ visit to Loon Lake was followed later that day by a visit to the health centre in Goodsoil where similar concerns were raised.

“Yes, it’s the same type of situation,” Weekes said. “They do have a retired doctor from Regina who helps during the summer, as well as a nurse practitioner, a primary health nurse and others who take care of the community, but they would like to have a physician living and working in their community full-time.”

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