A decade ago, Prince George was desperate for physicians of all stripes, but now conditions have improved so much that Northern Health has turned some specialists away due to lack of available spaces.
Northern Health chief operating officer for the interior Michael McMillan told the health authority board on Wednesday that some orthopedics specialists willing to relocate to Prince George were turned down because that department is fully staffed.
"It's a dramatic change from what it was 10 years ago, I got involved in 2000 and 2001 and it's night and day," board chairman Charles Jago said. "This has become a far more attractive place for people to look to establish a practice."
According to figures provided to the board, the resource plan in the northern interior health service delivery area calls for 102 specialists and currently there are 95.85 full-time equivalent positions in the region. In the first eight months of this year, 10 new specialists arrived and only five departed.
Among the specialties still in need of physicians are neurology, dermatology and psychiatry.
Both Jago and Northern Health CEO Cathy Ulrich cautioned against complacency. Although the number of physicians in the region has risen steadily in recent years, they are still anticipated challenges in the future.
"We need to plan for the future because people are going to be retiring," she said. "The workforce is aging so we need the continued production of these specialists."
During the board meeting, Jago and vice-president of medicine Dr. Ronald Chapman also discussed the concept of full employment of specialists and how given the fact that doctors come and go sustaining a vacancy rate of zero would be a challenge. Jago noted in the general economy, four per cent unemployment is often considered full employment.
In terms of family practice, Prince George currently has 95.7 full-time equivalent doctors working, slightly more than the resource plan of 94.5. That means people moving to Prince George no longer have difficulty finding a family physician.
But Ulrich said there's always a need for more general practitioners and recruitment efforts will continue.
"There are enough unattached patients around that we certainly wouldn't turn away a family practice physician," she said.
The overall recruitment success in recent years has led to a noticeable decline in the number of locums required in recent years, which Chapman attributes to increased staffing levels making more departments self-sufficient.
While the situation is bright in Prince George and some other communities in the region like Vanderhoof, Mackenzie and Fort St. James, there continues to be a shortage of family physicians in Fraser Lake and Burns Lake.
Currently only 0.5 full-time equivalent physicians are practicing in Fraser Lake in a community that calls for four full-time GPs. In Burns Lake 3.25 doctors are practicing when they plan calls for eight.
Northern Health spokesman Steve Raper said he's working with the medical affairs team to travel to hard-to-recruit areas to speak with local doctors and get them more actively involved in the recruitment process.
"The doctors that are there, we're asking, 'what is that you love and about practicing there and what is it that you love and living there,' " Raper said. "We want to showcase that and really celebrate that."