The new Progressive Conservative government will have a major task on its hands, as it tries to recruit family physicians for the 13,524 Islanders still on the patient registry.
But even those Islanders with a family doctor may still need medical attention in a variety of specialties, such as psychiatry, ob-gyn, or anesthesia, which also have vacancies.
Dylan Sampson of Greenwich was on the registry for nearly three years before being matched with a family physician in Montague just last year. He has dealt with mental health issues for much of his life, including when he was searching for a family doctor.
“I went to university (off-Island) and just forgot all about getting a family doctor,” he said. “I had to drop out halfway through my second year because I wasn’t able to cope anymore at this point. It was best to be at home with family and friends.”
Even after getting a doctor, Mr Sampson said he still had trouble receiving the care he needed.
The physician recommended he call Community Mental Health Services in Montague to get an appointment with a registered nurse with special training in mental health issues.
However, setting up that appointment was next to impossible.
Mr Sampson says he wasn’t able to attend any appointments last summer, as he was working in the fishery. When he called later in the year, he was told he’d soon be contacted but that never happened.
He’s currently searching for therapists in private practise but he doesn’t have insurance and is concerned how much it will cost him financially.
“If I’m paying for it, I want to know I’m getting good therapy,” he said.
When Mr Sampson was asked how different life may have been if he hadn’t been looking for a family doctor, he said he would’ve wanted to continue attending university.
“I was enjoying it; it was just a lot at once to handle,” he said.
Overall, there are 15.1 vacant full-time equivalent (FTE) positions Island-wide, according to information provided by Health PEI. That includes both family practice and other specialties.
The vacancies in family medicine include two in West Prince, one in East Prince, and two in Queens. Kings County, which includes Kings County Memorial and Souris Hospitals, has a full complement.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Wellness said three of those five spots are scheduled to be filled shortly; two individuals are committed to fill the two West Prince positions, while in Queens County, a physician is committed to start practise the last week of May.
Four physicians are committed to fill some of the 10.1 FTE positions in various specialties, including one in psychiatry, one in physical medicine, one in pathology, and one in internal medicine for the Prince County Hospital, the spokesperson added.
This is an overall improvement compared to April 2017, when The Graphic reported on vacancies in the health care system. At that time, PEI was short 20.77 FTE physicians including 7.32 FTE family doctors.
And more doctors are working on PEI than ever before. A record number of 257 doctors, including 94 in family practice, are working, breaking the previous number of 246 in 2017. Overall spending has also increased, from $109.5 million in 2017 to $116.67 million now.
However, what’s also increased is the number of people on the official patient registry – about 6,900 in 2017, and 13,524 now.
The spokesperson for Health and Wellness said the department works closely with Health PEI during the recruitment process. She added that whenever possible, recruitment begins well in advance of a position becoming vacant.
Dr Kris Saunders, outgoing president of the Medical Society of PEI, said the complement system, developed several decades ago, is “really outdated” in determining how many doctors the population needs.
“Five doctors couldn’t be expected to look after 13,524 patients,” he said, noting family physicians here are expected to have a patient base of 1,500 people whereas doctors in other provinces aren’t expected to carry as many.
Mr Saunders said the province has “no road map” for what the PEI health care system needs. He said the province needs to collect information on what patients need, and use that information to determine the number of physicians actually needed.
“My advice (to government) is I’d say you need to have a really good plan based on evidence, and then make a road map and work based on that.”
Dr Saunders said the medical society has met with both the new minister and Deputy Minister of Health, and he believes the new government is serious about working in a collaborative way. For his part, Dr Saunders said the medical society is willing to work “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the new government, and he’s willing to let the government take credit for any successes.
“To me, it’s a no-lose situation for government.”
Mr Sampson is also hopeful a new government will make some improvements, and said he sees positive indications that the new PC government will focus on collaboration and cooperation. He’d like the province to do more to encourage medical students from PEI to stay here and open a practice.
“I’d like to see smarter spending, especially for mental health. It’s been lacking for awhile and not looked at as a serious issue. It’s great to see the strides we’ve made but we need to make more,” Mr Sampson said.