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Promised SFU medical school still years from opening despite doctor shortage

This story is part of Situation Critical, a series from CBC British Columbia reporting on the barriers people in this province face in accessing timely and appropriate health care.

A stylized phrase reading 'SITUATION CRITICAL', made to read like a red heartbeat monitor.

When Sharman Minus had a heart attack in early 2020, she hadn’t had a family doctor in two years.

The 69-year-old Victoria retiree still doesn’t and as a result waits hours in emergency rooms or on telehealth lines  explaining her medical history again and again, hoping to get help for chronic symptoms or to adjust prescriptions.

“I lost my last doctor, he was retiring and he couldn’t get anyone to take over his practice,” said Minus, a volunteer with B.C. Health Care Matters, a new group that advocates for timely access to a family doctor for every B.C. resident. “The advantage of having a family doctor is golden … They’re the foundation of all of Canada’s health care.”

Nearly a million British Columbians are without a family doctor. 

In October 2020, the New Democrats made an election pledge to create a second medical faculty in an effort to address the doctor shortage in the province. According to the announcement at the time, the first cohort of students was to start at Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus next year. 

The province currently has only one such school — the University of B.C.’s Faculty of Medicine — which graduates about 174 family doctors each year. 

SFU says it is still in the public consultation phase and hasn’t yet filed a business plan with the province.

Once the plan is submitted and approved, SFU says it would still be three to four years before students could walk through the doors. It would still need to hire a dean and faculty, design the curriculum to meet qualification standards and attract students. 

Even after the first cohort begins their studies, it would still be at least six years before they qualify as doctors. 

“We have no sign the medical school is in the budget,” said B.C. Liberal health critic Shirley Bond. “There needs to be specific and concrete action including keeping their promise.”

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix tells the legislature on March 29 that an SFU medical school will be launched within the NDP’s four-year term. (Legislative Assembly of B.C.)

Health professionals across the province say staff shortages can be traced to a slew of retirements, long-awaited vacation days, and nurses and doctors leaving the profession after two years of the pandemic.

Adrian Dix, B.C.’s health minister, said more family doctors are needed, but it’s just one part of the solution to ongoing shortages.

“It will require a new medical school in British Columbia,” he said in the legislature on March 29. “It’s a commitment in the government’s four-year plan, and we intend to meet that commitment during this mandate.”

The province says planning is in progress and it’s provided $1.5 million toward the school’s development.

Surrey resident Hailey Gallant, 18, stands near her home. She has been unable to find a family doctor since being diagnosed with a thyroid condition three years ago. (Baneet Braich/CBC)

Another patient acutely feeling the doctor shortage crunch is Hailey Gallant. The Surrey resident says a new medical school would “help the community have more access to medical resources.”

The 18-year-old has lived with a thyroid condition for three years, as well as mental health issues, and like Minus, tried without luck to find a family doctor. Many walk-in clinics have told her they are full, too, she said.

“I need extra blood work done that I can’t get without a family doctor, so it’s very infuriating,” she said. “There needs to be more resources, more doctors.”

But Victoria’s Minus said it will take so long to graduate a class of doctors at a new medical school that it’s not an immediate or perfect fix to the current crisis. 

Additionally, she said it doesn’t address why so many physicians are leaving their practices in B.C., and why recruitment has been difficult.

“It’s all very well graduating people, but you have to attract them somehow,” she said. “The reason a lot of doctors are coming out of university now and not choosing family practice is the fact that they’re sort of undervalued and underpaid.”

David May, president of the B.C. College of Family Physicians, said changes are needed to retain existing family doctors and also attract new students to the field. The root of the problem, he said, is in how B.C. pays doctors and working conditions.

“Family physicians can’t afford to run a practice where they are having to employ their own staff and pay overhead,” he said.

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