Central Alta. clinic reports doctor shortage amid tense relationship with government

Dr. Gregory Sawisky, a doctor at the Battle River Medical Clinic, says the Ponoka-area facility has eight family doctors and needs 12 to serve the community, but can't find the physicians to go there.

A clinic in Ponoka says it is struggling to find new doctors due to the government’s battle with physicians. 

The Battle River Medical Clinic has had three family doctors leave since December 2019 and will see another leave this coming December. One doctor retired, and another left to go back to school. The third physician decided to leave for Ontario due to the poor relationship between Alberta doctors and the United Conservative government, says a physician at the clinic. 

“We lost that one physicians because of the lack of respect and the minister tearing up the physician master agreement, as well as Bill 21,” said Dr. Gregory Sawisky, a doctor at the Battle River Medical Clinic.

Bill 21 allows the provincial government to break existing contracts with Alberta doctors. Sawisky said the uncertainty surrounding existing and future contracts directly resulted in his former colleague leaving to practice in Ontario.

“With a complete lack of stability moving forward, he decided to vote with his feet and leave,” said Sawisky.

The clinic serves residents from Ponoka, Ponoka County, and Maskwacis. 

According to the physician, the clinic currently has eight permanent family doctors, including himself, but needs at least 12 to serve the population effectively. 

No doctors at the clinic are accepting new patients. 

"We’re all full, and we’re still scrambling to try and meet the needs of the patients who have lost their family doctors in the last year,” said Sawisky.

“We just can’t accept anymore patients unless we get new physicians to town.”

In an effort to replace the vacant positions, the Battle River Medical Clinic put job postings online. 

One applicant, Dr. Richard Luke Elloway, applied approximately two months ago. Although he was born in Washington State, Elloway has family in British Columbia and the Calgary area and he finished his undergraduate degree at Burman University in Lacombe. 

He said he always wanted to come back to central Alberta after spending time in Maskwacis -- until now.

“It’s always been on the back of my mind. I would go to Maskwacis once every week and help at soup kitchens and play games with the kids, and I always told them I want to come back someday and treat you guys medically," he told CTV News. 

However, Elloway let the clinic know in mid-October that he would no longer be making the move to Ponoka after reading countless articles about the battle between doctors and the provincial government, and talking to friends and family. He says he didn’t want to take the chance.

“When you’re applying for a clinic and thinking about jumping country lines, you don’t want the climate to be one of concern and change,” said Elloway.

“I do have family that work south of Calgary, also in a rural situation, and they were saying the same thing, like, 'Watch out. Don’t do it. Wait 'til things settle.'”

Elloway said the message he's received is, "You guys are not worth the cost."

He called the decision difficult, given the dire need of physicians in Ponoka.

“I honestly feel bad saying no because I know the need that they have in the Ponoka community, and I wish that I could have made that jump and trusted things were going to be OK, but I have too much student loan debt to take that chance.”

Sawisky said he was disappointed, but also understanding of the reasons why Elloway didn’t take the job.

“We were very hopeful that he was going to consider coming to Alberta, but, certainly, the writing’s on the wall in terms of what sort of reputation Alberta is developing, both nationally and now internationally, between its province and the doctors,” said Sawisky.

On top of the antagonistic relationship between the provincial government and Alberta doctors, Sawisky said it is even more difficult to recruit physicians in rural Alberta because rural doctors have a wide scope of practice.

“Recruiting new physicians is always tough in rural Alberta because rural medicine requires so much of doctors,” said Sawisky.

“As a rural family doctor, I provide care in the clinic, I provide care in the hospital, I provide care in the emergency department, and I assist with delivering babies.”

Sawisky has patients that drive from Penhold, 45 minutes south of Ponoka, to see him. He believes more rural Albertans will have longer drives if more doctors choose to leave or not practice in rural Alberta.

“To scare away family doctors, especially rural family doctors, is going to cause great harm to rural Albertans. They are going to have to travel further for medical care, and that will mean travelling further in winter, putting themselves potentially at risk.”

The provincial government recently announced that more than 11,000 doctors were registered to practice in Alberta—a net increase of 246 doctors from 2019. However, Sawisky argued that the number of registrations does not represent the number of doctors actually practicing in Alberta.

“There are more physicians registered in Alberta than there ever have been before, but that does not mean that those physicians have boots on the ground and are seeing patients in person. A physician can be registered in Alberta but not be practicing medicine here, and so those numbers are very artificial,” said Sawisky.

Elloway hopes that he can make the move to Alberta some time in the future. Right now, he is uncertain where he will end up, but considering going to British Columbia.

“I am looking into B.C. My family lives in the Vancouver area, and apparently there’s a lot of need there,” said Elloway.

“At some point, I still want to make it up there and give back to Maskwacis. I just don’t know when that will be.”