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Central Saanich council calls on province to treat physician shortage

About a third of Saanich Peninsula residents without a GP in 2019
Coun. Niall Paltiel of Central Saanich encourages the public to share their stories about the medical system after council passed a motion calling on the province to treat the shortage of general physicians with ‘urgency’ as if it were any other emergency. (Black Press Media file photo)

A motion passed by Central Saanich council calls on the provincial government to address the shortage of family physicians undermining quality of life on the Saanich Peninsula and elsewhere in B.C.

While Mayor Ryan Windsor acknowledged the provincial jurisdiction of the subject, he said the municipality definitely has to be involved. “Because our residents are crying out for medical coverage and it’s not falling on deaf ears around the council table and we are doing anything and everything we can.”

Coun. Niall Paltiel, who tabled the notice of motion, said it was the right time for Central Saanich to add its voice to the issue and advocate for what he called a “re-think” of policies concerning family physicians.

The motion specifically asks the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) to ask the provincial government to “address this crisis with the urgency of any state of emergency” in working with Doctors of BC and Divisions of Family Practice, non-profit groups that bring family doctors together, “for a solution that will rebuild the family practice system so that citizens of B.C. can be confident of having a doctor to call their own.”

RELATED: West Shore walk-in clinic closing due to chronic physician shortage

Access to physicians varies across the Saanich Peninsula. Figures from Island Health dating back to 2019 for the community health service area covering Central Saanich show 64 per cent of the area population (19,330 in 2016) attached to a general practitioner. The corresponding 2019 figures for the service areas covering Sidney (11,672) and North Saanich (11,249) are 66 per cent and 63 per cent respectively.

The figures are higher when looking at the percentage of the population attached to a group practice with general practitioners and nurse practitioners — 75 for Central Saanich, 76 per cent for Sidney and 73 for North Saanich.

Looking further back in time, 2017 data from Island Health covering the entire Saanich Peninsula local health area shows 79.4 per cent of the population attached to a physician – higher than the rate for Island Health of 78.6 per cent and the provincial rate of 76.5 per cent. In 2008, the Saanich Peninsula figure was 82.9 per cent, while Island Health was 81.8 per cent and B.C. was 79.5 per cent.

These raw numbers tell only part of the story. They say nothing about the various barriers which locals may have to cross to access these physicians in a timely manner with knock-on effects for local emergency rooms. Also looming are demographic changes that will see fewer working physicians care for an aging population.

It is against this broader backdrop that Paltiel is encouraging residents to share their stories. “If you have got a personal experience or concern, raise it with your MLA (or) through the ministry of health and make sure that you are adding to the collective group of voices that are asking for a change or re-think to our current system.”

Advocacy by municipalities can lead to changes by the provincial government, said Paltiel, when asked what kind of difference Central Saanich’s statement can make, pointing to the municipality’s role in shaping legislation around golf courses on land in the Agricultural Land Reserve.

“We are one local government, but at the same time, I do feel there this is an impetus now in advocating for residents on this provincial issue,” he said. “I feel that the lack of change and the lack of traction coming out from the province is definitely something we need to highlight and add our voice toward.”

Paltiel predicts that other municipalities will add their voice as well. “As the challenges within the health care system escalate, as will the calls to change it.”

Sarah Bragg, president and CEO of the Saanich Peninsula Hospital and Healthcare Foundation, which has been instrumental in a number of initiatives to improve primary care including its involvement with Shoreline Medical Society, said in a statement to Black Press Media that access to primary care is now the most pressing concern for communities throughout the province.

“(Its) effects are felt by residents everywhere on the Peninsula,” she said. “Saanich Peninsula Hospital and Healthcare Foundation would like to applaud the efforts of the Central Saanich council, for taking steps to help mitigate this healthcare crisis.”

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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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