SARM bear pit takes aim at rural health care concerns

Saskatchewan’s ministers didn’t leave unscathed after the SARM convention bear pit confronted the provincial government about issues seen in rural Saskatchewan.

Topics about Sask Power expansion, renewable energy, wildlife damage and fertilizer reduction were brought up during the Wednesday event, but health care was one of the larger discussions that dominated the day.

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Pamela Bartlett with the Rural Municipality of Enniskillen said the physician in their area noted that the Saskatchewan International Physician Practice Assessment Program (SIPPA) program was full until 2024 and wondered why unlimited seats weren’t available, and why rural areas weren’t being selected for SIPPA facilities.

Physicians who have been assessed by SIPPA are now eligible for the Rural Physician Incentive Program after Premier Scott Moe announced that they’d be raising the incentive to $200,000 over five years.

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Minister of Health Paul Merriman didn’t directly answer the question at first, and went on to list things that the province is already doing to try and address the shortage of doctors and nurses.

He added the media didn’t talk much about some of the things they’ve accomplished, saying they recruited 165 doctors in the last 17 months, 60 of whom were family physicians.

Merriman said the SIPPA program doesn’t have a good retention rate, noting they’d prefer to have people come into the province and stay.

“We do have SIPPA programs where there is a little bit of a rotation coming through, we don’t have a great retention rate, that’s why we’re trying to recruit our own in Saskatchewan,” Merriman said.

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He added nursing programs are remote around Saskatchewan.

Minister of Rural and Remote Health Everett Hindley brought up nurse practitioners, noting that they are looking to add more where they can, and they are looking at potentially expanding the scope of practice for nurse practitioners, as well as paramedics and pharmacists.

Cody Jordison from the RM of Lumsden said the health-care funding increase was nice, but the province continues to fund an outdated model.

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“We need to train rural registered nurses to become nurse practitioners, we need advanced care paramedics in our rural ERs, and we need to modernize equipment to connect rural facilities with acute care centers.”

He said the province is spending an awful lot of money for physicians to stay for five years when they could be recruiting nurse practitioners instead.

Moe said he agreed, and Hindley said that is exactly what they are trying to do.

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Merriman added they are trying to bring in physician assistants in the near future, which he compared to military medics.

“Like a paramedic, but more of an army medic that can do almost anything that a doctor can do, but has to have a doctor either sign off on what they have completed as far as their treatment of the patient.”

He said the sign-off can be something like a phone call or video call.

Merriman noted these physician assistants are being utilized in Manitoba and Ontario.

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Kim Custer with the RM of Glenside said travel nurses were being brought in to work alongside nurses already employed in hospitals, but are making anywhere from $120-$150 per hour, with some of them getting free housing for six weeks, as well as rental vehicles .

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“That’s not good for the morale of our own health-care workers,” Custer said.

She noted the hospital isn’t clean enough, and safety outside the hospital needs to be addressed.

Merriman said these travel contract nurses are a very small percentage of the overall workforce.

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“This is not something that we particularly want to do, we feel we have to do to keep the service disruptions that are in rural Saskatchewan to a minimum.”

He said there are around 10,000 nurses in Saskatchewan, adding that there are about 100 travel nurses in rural Saskatchewan.

Merriman said there’s also a contract fee, so not all that money is going into the travel nurse’s pocket.

He says travel nurses are a temporary solution until positions can be filled on a permanent basis.

Hindley noted they are trying to create more permanent, full-time positions, adding that was a message they heard from rural communities.

“It was a very consistent message that we do have a number of areas across this province where we have people that are interested, and available and capable of working in these positions, but not if it’s a temporary or part-time position,” Hindley said.

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