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The doctor is not in

Sir Thomas Roddick Hospital in Stephenville is actively trying to recruit staff, but in the meantime a shortage of healthcare professionals can delay treatment. – © File photo

By Jaymie L. White

Special to Wreckhouse Press

STEPHENVILLE — The issue of healthcare has been a growing concern throughout the province, and in the Bay St. George region that is focused on the shortage of family physicians and specialists, including surgeons.

Positive steps are being made to ensure the Sir Thomas Roddick Hospital and other healthcare facilities in Stephenville see an increase in healthcare professionals, including a recruitment incentive package by the town. But in the meantime the impact from these healthcare shortages are being felt.

In an email to The Appalachian, Odelle Pike with the Newfoundland Aboriginal Women’s Network expressed grave concern.

“This lack of services has the immediate concern for emergency procedures such as trauma, injuries, appendicitis, bowel blockages and ruptures, etc. but also has an impact at so many levels. The current situation is that Western Health has no immediate plans to have surgical services available here until late March, which in itself is a major gap and truly not acceptable. But the larger picture is the lack of consistent surgical services for perhaps more than two years. Dr. Vermak was the last consistent surgeon on staff. He spent much of his placement here without the second surgical position covered consistently. When we have a temporary locum, they are in the unusual situation of being directed to only do emergency procedures, leaving the bulk of the referrals from local physicians to the one and only surgeon to see. When Dr. Vermak left, the hundreds of referrals that had not been seen were sent back to the referring physicians with a note to refer to someone else.”

Pike adds that the current shortage of physicians leaves nine family doctor positions vacant, leaving people with no surgeon and no family doctor to assist them when issues arise.

“This is not only a lack of care but a significant risk management issue for the health system. The lack of family doctors also leaves our people without the one person who is the gateway to access surgical specialists, making longer wait times for the existing family doctors and a real difficulty for people to address ongoing health problems. Consequently, people present later in their disease progression with urgent care issues in the emergency room, where there is no surgeon available. It is a vicious cycle that really victimizes our people.”

Over the past two years, COVID-19 has only exacerbated an already serious problem.

“We have a culture of fear created in our society so that our elderly, our people who are immune compromised, are both reluctant and afraid to leave the safety of their homes. This not only compounds the delays in access to health services, it creates a situation where people who have what may be a minor health issue, which is delayed to be accessed at a much later time with more complications. Look at what this can mean to so many issues. A skin irregularity that could be melanoma, a stomach pain and vomiting from a gall stone that becomes a blocked bile duct and continual pain syndrome, intermittent bowel disruptions becoming bowel blockages and rupture. So many scenarios, so many difficulties for our people. I haven’t even gone into detail of people who have to wait as high as ten hours to get a prescription refilled. Our healthcare system is broken, and we need solutions immediately.”

Stephenville Mayor Tom Rose stated that without a surgeon in Stephenville, the region is left in a perilous situation.

“We stepped into our recruitment over two years ago and it takes time for traction. We’re in a very precarious situation right now without a surgeon here in Stephenville and that’s a place we never, ever want to be. In the past, we’ve been down to one surgeon, and we don’t ever want to be there again because one surgeon can’t cover seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

Rose said there are currently talks in place to bring the necessary specialists to the Sir Thomas Roddick Hospital to ensure these surgical services are in place.

“These surgeons are general surgeons that will be able to step in for trauma to save a life in a moment’s notice, because moments count when somebody is in a life-threatening situation, and that could be a ruptured bowel, it could be an appendix that ruptured, a trauma. It’s so important. But now we’ve been working really closely with Western Health and their recruitment team, and we are now in talks with them to source two surgeons. Our complement is we need two surgeons, we need two anesthesiologists, and we need two internists.”

Rose said the hospital in Stephenville is first class and the staff are phenomenal, but that all complements need to be there because they all support each other.

“We have lobbied hard, and we’ve pushed hard, and I support what Odelle Pike is saying because it’s true. The biggest thing I will say is that, if there’s ever a time when we need a surgeon, we need them more now than ever because people have been pent up. They haven’t been able to see family doctors. We have a shortage of family physicians. So when they arrive at the hospital emergency room their condition is upscaled in severity and the requirement for surgery is more needed.”

Rose said that even though healthcare recruitment isn’t normally an issue that directly involves the municipalities, the Town of Stephenville is working hard to help.

“COVID has caused a lot of anxiety in people. It has created big demands on the healthcare system as we well know, but we are playing our part in Stephenville. And we take this very, very seriously, even though municipalities are not traditionally involved, but for us as a municipality, this is very important – healthcare for our residents. We’re leaders, we’ve been elected, and we’ll be champions to ensure that we get the adequate services for our children, our seniors, and all our residents.”

Western Health did not respond to inquiries prior to publication deadline.

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