Vision to strengthen rural care resonates with graduates
James Card was planting trees in a remote part of northern B.C. in the summer of 2000 when news came over the radio from Prince George—thousands of residents had gathered at the local arena to protest the shortage of physicians.
“It kind of got me thinking that it would be a good job in terms of future employability,” he says. “That’s when the seed started to set. It was not something I had grown up wanting to do, but I saw the opportunity.”
When the time had come to act on his idea, that rally had borne fruit—UBC’s medical education program was expanding beyond the Lower Mainland, to Prince George and Victoria. By distributing doctor training around the province, the thinking went, more doctors would be likely to set up their practices throughout the province.
Card was accepted into the inaugural class of the Northern Medical Program, hosted by the University of Northern British Columbia. He and his 23 classmates experienced the same curriculum as their fellow UBC students in Vancouver and Victoria, with many classes conducted by videoconferencing.
Now, having completed four years of medical school and two years of postgraduate training (or “residency”) in family medicine, Dr. Card is one of the first family doctors produced by UBC’s distributed medical education program.
He has stayed in Prince George, filling in for physicians who are vacation or maternity leave, or helping out in the Emergency Department of the University Hospital of Northern BC. But he also ventures around the province, performing “locums”—short stints—for weeks or months at a time, at clinics or hospitals. He has worked in the northern town of Mackenzie (pop. 4,500), the bustling maternity ward of Surrey Memorial Hospital, and even his home town of Maple Ridge.
“It’s a neat way to see the province,” he says. “I like the variety.”
Some of Dr. Card’s former classmates have chosen a less peripatetic path since completing their family practice residencies—and true to plan, they have settled in the North.
Jennifer Parker, who dreamed of being a doctor since the age of six, is tending to patients in Fort St. John, a 480 kilometre-drive north from Prince George. A Cree Metis who was raised in the northern B.C. towns of Chetwynd and Fort Nelson, she was intent on returning to the region as a doctor.
So after earning her MD, Dr. Parker also opted for a residency in the north, in Ft. St. John. Before long, she was thinking about settling there.
“The medical community here is very friendly, welcoming, accepting and very supportive of one another,” she says. “I just got to do so much in that space of time, and everybody was so excited to teach me.”
She is one of the few B.C. born-and-raised physicians in town; most of the others are transplants from South Africa, the U.K., Australia and other Canadian provinces. Her days are long and varied, and can easily include delivering babies, assisting in surgery, seeing patients in the family practice she has joined, and working in the hospital’s emergency room. She also travels to outlying towns, such as Hudson’s Hope, every month.
“This was sort of what I had envisioned to begin with, and being in the Northern Medical Program, I was able to easily confirm that this is what I wanted,” she says.
Brian Hillhouse, like Dr. Parker, also was raised in the north. Although he spent years earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree at UBC’s Vancouver campus, he wanted to return to hometown Prince George as a family doctor. The opening of the Northern Medical Program, in his hometown, seemed tailored just for him.
Upon completing his residency in Prince George, he joined a practice there; he also sees patients at a walk-in clinic and the hospital’s Emergency Department, where it becomes clear just how many more like him are needed. His fellow physicians estimate that a third of the town’s residents don’t have a family doctor.
“When I work in a walk-in clinic or in the emergency department, every day I’m faced with the dilemma—‘How do I get this person to follow up?’” Dr. Hillhouse says. “Usually the shortcut is I see them in my office for that problem, because otherwise there would be no follow-up.”