MacEachern secures $25,000 in funding for physician recruitment in region

ST. STEPHEN – St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern has secured $25,000 in funding to help recruit doctors in the region.

He made the successful plea at a recent board meeting of the Southwest New Brunswick Regional Service Commission after his request for $10,000 a few years ago was rejected.

“The doctor shortage is at a critical state now,” MacEachern told The Saint Croix Courier. “It’s too bad about that. We knew this was an issue.”

The money will come from the Regional Service Commission’s $633,000 budget for cooperative and regional planning, which is funded by municipalities and local service districts.

MacEachern didn’t make a specific dollar figure suggestion at the Oct. 28 commission board meeting. But his proposal to attack the issue collectively as a region generated unanimous support.

“Al’s expressed a sense of urgency with this,” said committee member Wade Greenlaw. “This isn’t something we’d say, ‘Let’s wait and see how it plays out in six months or a year from now and then we’ll put some money in the budget.’ We’ve got to get to this right now.”

They agreed to form an ad hoc committee focused on the effort and provide a budget of $25,000.

The money will be used to support endeavours to recruit doctors and nurse practitioners, and for possible scholarships for medical students who promise to work in the region.

MacEachern could have used his own family as an example of the struggles facing others in the region, the rest of New Brunswick, and beyond.

With the retirement of two long-time St. Stephen doctors, Dr. John Stewart and Dr. Donald Acheson, he and his wife are each losing their primary care physician. Like tens of thousands of others around the province, they’re on a government waitlist that some have been on as long as four years.

The mayor’s wife, Crystal MacEachern, discovered in July that she has a brain tumour. MacEachern doesn’t fault her doctor but does wonder if there’s something wrong with the system, perhaps a shortage of specialists, that prevented her from getting an MRI and diagnosis much sooner that could have avoided the surgery she now needs.

MacEachern says he and his wife are far from unusual.

“I don’t want to make it sound like we are the only ones,” he said. “How many other people have had that story, where they’ve had a little bit of pain and either couldn’t get an appointment with a specialist or didn’t have a doctor and the pain turned into something more serious? It’s worse for people who don’t have a doctor.”

He estimates four doctors and nurse practitioners are needed.

Years ago when doctors retired, they’d often be able to sell their practices to new doctors and use the proceeds to help fund their retirement nest eggs. With the doctor shortage and changing lifestyles, there seems to be little demand.

Rather than solo practices, doctors often lean towards working in groups of four or more, with a shared support staff. That makes it tough for towns and villages to recruit when they don’t have enough people to warrant more than a doctor or two.

MacEachern said he’d be willing to drive 20 minutes to another municipality if that’s where a group of doctors wanted to set-up shop.

Another concern is work-life balance.

Committee member John Detorakis, mayor of the Town of St. George, said his daughter is a doctor in Alberta. She wants to come home to practice and it’s not money that’s the deciding factor.

“She’s not returning because the system is so overstressed that doctors are expected to do gymnastics with their schedule and not have a real life,” he said during the meeting. “That can only be dealt with if the province takes the responsibility to catch-up in the lack of funding that’s happened over the last five years.”

Working together as a region can help advance those kinds of concerns, he said.

MacEachern has been working on the issue for years, and hired a consultant to come up with possible solutions.

One idea is to entice a developer to build a downtown apartment with a ground-floor health clinic. “As a municipality, we can’t take on the cost of a clinic,” said MacEachern. “We can put a plan together and help fundraise and invest some taxpayer money, but in the end, they’d need to take it over and run it.”

Another possibility is to bring doctors into the community on a part-time basis, a couple of times a week, so locals don’t have to travel to the city for basic care.

MacEachern said there are limits to recruitment efforts by municipalities. “In the end, it’s the province’s responsibility to make the hires,” he said. “We can make all the promises we want, but Horizon has control of where the doctors go.”

The responsibility of St. Stephen and other towns and municipalities, said MacEachern, is “to build a community that’s a really great place to live.”

“We need to focus our energy there.”

Janet Whitman