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EDITORIAL: Ominous diagnosis

Dr. Herb Dickieson recently retired from his large family practice in O'Leary.
Dr. Herb Dickieson recently retired from his large family practice in O'Leary. (Journal-Pioneer) - The Guardian

More than 3,000 residents of West Prince are without a family doctor.

There are no easy solutions and it’s not just a Prince Edward Island issue. Other areas of the country are facing the same problem – a shortage of doctors, especially family physicians.

In this province, the situation is most dire in West Prince which was recently hit by a devastating one-two punch – the recent retirements of legends Dr. Herb Dickieson and Dr. Charles Dewar. Both had huge practices and so far, they have proven to be irreplaceable.

More than 3,000 residents of West Prince are without a family doctor. They are worried, especially those with serious illnesses. The uncertainty doesn’t help their health issues.

Most residents who went to Dickieson or Dewar find themselves in a Catch-22 situation. Health officials encouraged those patients not to place themselves on the provincial patient registry as the province is trying to recruit physicians to take over those two practices. The province can point to low numbers on the registry for better optics, but the reality is much worse. Several hundred of those patients placed themselves on the registry because they need to see a doctor on an immediate, regular basis.

Health P.E.I. finds it more difficult to recruit doctors to rural areas like West Prince and Kings County. In mid-January, the province announced that two new family doctors in eastern P.E.I. will mark the first time in nearly a decade that Kings County will have a full physician complement.

But it doesn’t address the growing crisis at the other end of the Island. Two physicians recently made site visits in West Prince and two more are scheduled to visit, but that does little to solve the present situation.

Health P.E.I. is trying. Recruiters attended a physician job fair in Montreal, met with medical students at Dalhousie and Memorial universities and launched a nation-wide social media campaign aimed at finding family doctors. They are willing to hire a temporary locum doctor if one can be found.

In the meantime, West Prince residents without a doctor have few options. They can see nurse practitioners at the O’Leary Health Centre or go to the emergency department at Western Hospital in Alberton or Prince County Hospital in Summerside.

Nurse practitioners are stepping forward to ease some of the uncertainty but even appointments to see them are backed up at the O’Leary Medical Centre. For Option B, the sick sometimes have to wait hours in outpatients at Western Hospital in Alberton just to get medications for the flu. There is some good news - two additional nurse practitioners are coming to western P.E.I. in April.

Solutions are expensive and long-term. The province is examining various financial incentives for both doctors and medical students; while regionally, there could be expanded medical school enrolments, relaxed restrictions on foreign-trained doctors and fewer barriers facing Canadians training at international schools. But these potential resolutions are all months or years away.

West Prince residents are convinced the system is broken and no one is offering them much help – long-term, short-term or otherwise.

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