A medical clinic in Sidney has started to repay the town for a $192,000 loan it received at the end of 2016.
The Saanich Peninsula Primary Health Care Society, which operates the Peninsula Medical clinic on Bevan Avenue, has already repaid $50,000 of the loan and a second payment of $50,000 is expected April 1 this year. The remaining $92,000 will be repaid to the Town of Sidney over five installments, starting in 2019.
The Town made the loan in December 2016, to help the Society complete renovations to their new medical clinic, while they awaited charitable status from the federal government.
Those renovations allowed the Society to create space for new doctors, who have started to make a dent in the estimated 20,000 people on the Peninsula who do not have regular family doctors. The clinic took in around 1,000 patients in their first year of operation. As of this year, the clinic has provided a doctor for almost 4,000 people who did not have a family physician. It also added a walk-in clinic during the week and has started offering walk-in services on Saturdays, the first one held on Jan. 20 — with more days to come as additional doctors are recruited.
“Over one year ago, we were halfway through a renovation and had not yet achieved charitable status as we were trying to recruit doctors,” said Shawna Walker, executive director of the Society. “Without that loan, we wouldn’t have been able to continue and (would have) put renovations on hold. It would have been costly and I think it would have cost us the ability to attract the doctors that we did.”
The society-run clinic has seven doctors on staff and was created out of the province’s GP For Me program, which sought to connect more people with family physicians. The non-profit organization is the administrative side, handling operations and leaving patient care up to new, younger doctors looking to start their careers.
Part of their mandate, in working with the Saanich Peninsula Hospital Foundation, is to have physicians provide services at the local hospital. The clinic is also a teaching outpost for the University of British Columbia. The Society also has an in-house pharmacist to streamline patient care and hopes to add a nurse position soon.
Still, Walker said there are challenges to attracting young doctors to the area. One of the biggest problems is the cost of housing. She said they have two new doctors considering coming here, but said housing prices are an issue.
“It is prohibitive for these young people to come here, with this cost of living.”
She suggested to council that they work with other municipalities in B.C. on issues like housing and how they can create the conditions for dedicated homes for physicians in new developments.
Karen Morgan, executive director of the Hospital Foundation, added new doctors right out of medical school carry an average debt of $125,000.
“Trying to even qualify for a mortgage is difficult,” Morgan said, adding housing incentives could mean fewer doctors leaving the community in the long run.
Walker added recruiting new doctors to take over existing physicians’ practices is difficult because of the patient load and time commitment, but it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.
“Sixty per cent of family physicians on the Peninsula are over 55 years old,” she said. “It’s a given they are going to be retiring.”
To help attract more doctors, the Society is working with UBC on a rural elective program from late 2017 to June this year. Six residents out of medical school will come to Sidney for two weeks to see what the practice is like here. Walker said that’s six more pairs of eyes “seeing what we do and hopefully we can entice them to join us full time.”
Walker credited the SPHF’s support for making it possible for the Society to pay the Town back. And as they look ahead, Walker said they hope to build a second clinic on the Peninsula, and expand their model of care.
Councillor Barbara Fallot said she initially hesitated on the loan and voted against it. Now, she said she supports it.
“It definitely is the right thing,” she said. “It’s a marked difference in that clinic from what it used to be.”
Mayor Steve Price praised the Society for its work and for councillors who supported the loan.
“I’m so glad the majority of council voted for this. It took a great deal of courage for the councillors to vote in favour of this.”