Central Okanagan at risk of losing maternity services within next year due to doctor shortage

Maternity services at risk

Maternity services in the Central Okanagan are in jeopardy as a shrinking pool of doctors is strained by rapid population growth.

In a newsletter to members, the Central Okanagan Division of Family Practice warned local doctors of the shrinking pool of obstetrics physicians in the region.

“The Central Okanagan is a growing community with a climbing birth rate. Births have increased at Kelowna General Hospital for the past two years. In contrast, the number of obstetrical providers who can attend these births is declining,” said the letter.

There are currently 13 obstetrics physicians in the Central Okanagan, a number that will drop to 11 in 2024.

“The current situation is contributing to more provider burn-out, and a decline in the quality and safety of the care being provided to pregnant patients,” the letter continued, which explained there are now "no available providers for maternity patients who are due to deliver in July, August and likely September of 2023.”

That immediate shortage will not impact women who are pregnant and are already attached to a doctor or midwife, but a pregnant woman who moves into the region with one of those due dates will likely be unable to find an obstetrics physician to care for them through the remainder of their pregnancy.

They would have to navigate their pregnancy using walk-in clinics or urgent care centres.

“The Central Okanagan risks losing maternity services within the next year if low risk obstetrics can’t be sustained,” the message to local doctors says.

Family doctors are being advised to refer pregnant patients to maternity providers earlier to account for the caps on the number of patients clinics can safely take each month.

“However, Central Okanagan maternity patients may soon be required to travel to the South Okanagan Maternity Centre in Penticton as they are currently able to accommodate prenatal referrals,” family doctors were told.

In response to the crisis, the division of family practice said it is working with the provincial government and Doctors of BC to develop a shared maternity care clinic at Kelowna General Hospital. That clinic would include six exam rooms and need at least four doctors to open, with 16 staff in total.

Renovations are happening while contract negotiations between providers and the Ministry of Health take place and it is hoped the space would be “ready to go” this summer.

In Kamloops, a maternity clinic at Royal Inland Hospital is closed and is no longer taking patients due to a doctor shortage. That clinic previously delivered about 60 of the 100 newborns delivered each month at Royal Inland Hospital.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said last week the ministry hoped to have a solution in Kamloops soon, calling the closure partly a “payment model issue, and we’re working closely with the doctors to see that that's resolved.”

Interior Health declined to comment on the situation in Kelowna.

Dr. Joshua Nordine, a family doctor in Rutland, says the B.C. healthcare system is facing a shortage of staff across the entire spectrum.

“Simply put we have not kept up with increasing the workforce supply as our population ages and grows,” he said. “While this has been felt for a long time in smaller communities, we are now noticing even in main tertiary centers like Kelowna. We need to do more than a hiring alone approach.”

Dr. Nordine said the government needs to continue increasing nursing and medical school spots and expedite qualified physicians from other provinces and “limit unnecessary barriers.”

Dr. Nordine, who has long been advocating for the end of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, says those impacted healthcare workers should be able to return to the workforce now that the World Health Organization no longer considers the coronavirus a global emergency.

He also points to WorkBC statistics that show the healthcare and social services sector is losing jobs at a time when they should be added.

So far this year, B.C. has lost 2,500 healthcare and social services workers. Last year, the province lost 18,000.

“We need to focus on the unfolding human staffing resource crisis and face it with effective well thought out policies,” Dr. Nordine said.

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