Chetwynd losing all but one doctor

Three out of Chetwynd's four doctors are leaving the district come this summer.

Northern Health confirmed that Dr. Siegfried Schreve, Dr. Johann Schreve and Dr. Tim Van Der Heide will depart the community this July. The doctors made the announcement in an open letter to the community last week.

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Unless a new physician is recruited before the three doctors leave, Dr. Anton Venter will be the district's sole remaining physician.

Chetwynd has a population of over 2,700, but the clinic serves a larger area of about 7,000 people.

The departure will come with a hefty bill for one of the doctors.

In 2013, the organization Doctors of BC earmarked $100,000 from the Rural Physicians of B.C. program for one physician to relocate to Chetwynd for at least a three-year term. Because the doctor is leaving after only two years, he will be required to repay the $100,000 bonus, according to Doctors of BC.

The signing bonus came from a collaborative committee of Doctors of BC and the Ministry of Health.

Angela de Smit, Northern Health's chief operating officer, told Alaska Highway News that some of the departures did not come as a surprise.

"From my understanding, it's been well known that (Siegfried Schreve), is retiring and that his son (Johann) had just come up to Chetwynd to help him out," she said.

De Smit was less sure about Van Der Heide's departure.

She said Northern Health will attempt to determine why all three doctors are leaving through exit interviews.

She admitted that these departures make things "more challenging" for both the health authority and Chetwynd.

Ernest Pfanner, a city councillor who chairs the health services committee for council, agreed.

"Functioning with one doctor is not manageable," he said. "We can't manage our ER (with one doctor)."

Pfanner said the district's doctor recruitment challenges began about five years ago when legislative changes made things more difficult to bring in doctors from South Africa.

Northern Health's target is four full-time doctors in Chetwynd.

Pfanner said his council wants five doctors to practice there.

Doctor retention challenges are not unique to Chetwynd.

Northern Health has struggled to attract and retain doctors in northeastern B.C.

There are currently about 23 doctors practising in Fort St. John. A 2014 plan for the city calls for 38. Four more were recently recruited and will arrive between July and September.

De Smit said there are "several selling points" for physicians wishing to practice in Chetwynd.

"One is that it is a smaller community where physicians are able to practice almost at full scope," she said. "They're able to really have an opportunity to get to know their patients, because it is a smaller community, and there is a new opportunity of a brand new health clinic of which physician practices are there to help in that clinic, as well as community staff, such as health and addictions staff, home and community care."

A new medical clinic is under construction to replace the district's aging facility.

The current building -- a former RCMP station -- "is old, poorly laid out for medical office purposes and does not allow the physicians to practice their profession in an effective manner," a District of Chetwynd document states.

The new clinic will be owned by Chetwynd and is slated to cost over $1 million. The district is footing part of bill and some funding comes from the province.

The health authority "is trying to get very creative in terms of how to recruit and retain physicians in Northern Health and is more progressive than some of the health authorities because of the challenges that we're experiencing," said de Smit.

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