The North Island’s health-care crisis continues, but there does appear to be more clarity in sight.
Black Press Media’s Tyson Whitney sat down with Island Health vice-president James Hanson on March 1 for an in-depth interview on a range of health-care topics.
Hanson has been in charge of clinical operations for the North Island for roughly the past three years.
He was part of an Island Health’s executive team that met with employees in Port McNeill, Cormorant Island, and Port Hardy, primarily to discuss the implementation of $30 million package of initiatives recently announced by Health Minister Adrian Dix.
The main issue for Island Health is the constant struggle to find staff and physicians for all three hospitals.
For example, agency nurses were used for years almost solely in rural communities, but now they’re being used everywhere in the province and across Canada.
“The explosion of the use of agency nurses in the Canadian system means that people who do that job can choose where they want to work more than they ever have,” Hanson said. “They’re choosing to work in places like Vancouver, Kelowna, Victoria, or Nanaimo instead of Port Hardy, Port McNeill and Cormorant Island.”
Island Health is currently dealing with a similar struggle with physician recruitment.
“We were able to pull from locum positions and return of service positions in the past, but now there’s far more options available to them in other regions,” Hanson said.
Hanson confirmed Cormorant Island still only has one doctor on staff.
“What I can say for that community specifically though is we are actually starting to see quite a bit of uptake and interest, they’re currently recruiting two nurses from out of town.”
Cormorant Island and Port Hardy still don’t have overnight emergency department services available yet either, but Hanson assured that Island Health’s goal is to “get back to 24/7 services in all three of the bigger communities in the region.”
It’s not all bad news, though.
Hanson said new recruiting incentives have started to net some positive results. He specifically mentioned retention bonuses for the organization’s employees.
“We did have some feedback on that [retention bonuses],” he said. “There was some conversation from employees who are casual that it doesn’t quite apply to them, only the full-time folks, so we’re going to take that feedback and look at how we can tweak it … I’m hopeful I will be able to come back in two months and talk about how successful we’ve been.”
As for the longstanding idea of whether the North Island should simply build one central hospital for the entire region, Hanson said he doesn’t foresee that happening in the near future.
“It’s not in the works for now. We are building redundancy in the system by ensuring we have more staff at all of the facilities,” he stated. “We are committed to operating the three hospital sites, four when you include Port Alice.”
Hanson said another issue Island Health has been dealing with is constant negative media coverage.
“When people wonder where Port Hardy is and they do a google search, [Island Health] obviously has a media profile that’s a bit negative,” he stated, adding they have also heard complaints from employees about the town’s lack of daycare options, how the infrastructure doesn’t suit young families, and that there’s not enough appropriate housing.
“That is our challenge, how do we overcome that narrative so that people who are interested can reach out and we can have a warm conversation about what it looks like to work here.”
Meanwhile, Hanson was not able to divulge much in terms of outspoken Port Hardy doctor Alex Nataros, who’s been blowing the whistle on health-care issues and making waves since moving to town in August.
An external review is underway regarding the suspension of Nataros’ emergency room privileges at all Island Health hospitals. Nataros wrote a letter to his patients stating that as of Feb. 23, he is no longer practicing medicine in any Island Health facilities until there is new health authority leadership, as he feels it is no longer safe for him to do so.
“Effective immediately, I will be seeing patients registered in my practice in the new ‘Dr. Nataros’ Medical Clinic’ located in unit #3 of the Thunderbird Mall,” wrote Nataros. “This is an interim space to be used until June 1, 2023 when Dr. Howie Lee and I will be opening the Quatse Community Health Centre in the Thunderbird Mall.”
Hanson called it a challenging situation.
“We generally don’t comment on patient issues, but what I’ve heard from staff, and what I’ve told them that they can communicate to others, is that in some instances no care is better than unsafe care, and that’s why we close emergency departments when we don’t have enough staff, and that’s why we have to review situations when they come up where patients have been harmed or there’s been complaints.”
Hanson said physicians are free to provide primary care in any community setting they want.
“We will never get in the way of that … we need more physicians here period.”
Veteran Port McNeill doctor Prean Armogam’s physician contract with the community of Sointula on Malcolm Island has been another point of contention on social media lately, and he has also been publicly critical of Island Health’s management of North Island health care.
Hanson said it’s ultimately Armogam’s decision whether he wants to renew.
“I respect a lot of the comments and suggestions he has, he’s not wrong,” he said.
“He provides a valuable service to that community and the community really respects the service he provides, so yes, we would like to be in a position where we have a contract with him for that community.”
There’s currently a health-care rally scheduled for March 11 in Port McNeill at the North Island Secondary School gymnasium at 11 a.m.
Hanson said he doesn’t know enough about it to comment omuch, but if the rally is about getting more physicians, staff, and services, “then we share the same concerns and we want to provide those things, and that’s absolutely why we have invested in these communities.”
Above all else, Hanson said he wants the communities to know that Island Health is “investing in infrastructure and people, we want to retain the staff of people who work here and we want to attract new people to the region.”
“What I would like is for the communities to celebrate what they have and help us market the communities in a way that attracts all of the people that we need.”