The chronic shortage of family physicians which has plagued Prince George in recent years is easing, but there's still work to do, according to Northern Health.
The creation of the Northern Medical Program as well as new models for clinics has made it more enticing for general practitioners to set up shop in Prince George. The new physicians have lessened the pressure on the system and given more people an opportunity to get connected with a family physician, but Northern Health spokesman Steve Raper said recruitment and retention efforts must continue.
"I don't know I would say there's enough [physicians]," he said.
"Being a city our size, there's turnover, there's retirement, there's physicians that come and go and move on, so I would be reluctant to say there's enough spaces available for all of the patients, I think we still have some work to do."
Raper said the university program is both producing new graduates who are willing to set up practice in the region and attracting established physicians who are interested in the teaching aspects of the school. In addition, he credited new partnerships between community groups and the health authority to help bring new doctors to town.
In the past it was estimated that upwards of 10,000 to 15,000 residents didn't have access to a family physician, but thanks to the influx of new physicians there's actually excess capacity at the moment with a handful of general practitioners accepting new patients.
"Five or six years ago that was a really big problem," Prince George Division of Family Practice executive director Olive Godwin said of the lack of family physicians.
"Right now in this community there are four family physicians currently taking patients, so there's about 4,000 spots out there in the community among family doctor's offices and [the Blue Pine] clinic."
It's not known how many people are currently without a family doctor in Prince George or how many are actively trying to find one, but the open spaces are significant change from the situation a few years ago.
The Blue Pine clinic is one of the new models of primary care that serves a dual purpose of providing a service that previously didn't exist in the community and using a system of care which attracts new physicians to the region. At Blue Pine, nurse practitioners and physicians work hand in hand with other medical professionals like mental health and social workers in a team environment.
Raper said that team concept is proving popular with young physicians.
"We're hearing from some of the newer physicians that they like group practice, they like working as part of a team, not only with other physicians but other specialists and nurses and dietitians," he said.
The healthy authority has also explored new clinic models in communities like Fort St. James and Mackenzie in recent years that have been successful in bringing in new doctors.
In order to keep up the positive momentum, Northern Health is planning some new recruitment techniques in the coming months. The health authority will launch a new website which will feature testimonials from physicians around the region.
"One thing we know, physicians talking to physicians is very important," Raper said. "That's who they want to hear from when you're talking about the lifestyle and the work in a community so we've got physician champions that are stepping forward and saying, 'I'd love to tell my story about why I work and live in this community.'"
Rather than dealing with physician shortage crisis as they arise in the North, the health authority is also looking to develop long-term relationships with doctors who may be interested in coming to the region. Raper said Northern Health will create a database so it can follow up with physicians who may declined a move to the North at one point in their career, but may be open to making the move later.
"I think over time, I hope we will get to a place where no person is lacking a family physician," Raper said.
"I'm not sure we're there yet, but we've made some significant strides in that direction."