It appears some help is on the way to increase the number of family physicians in Cochrane.
The alarm bell went off in late April when residents were shocked by the announcement of the closure of the Cochrane Primary Care Centre, where about 10 physicians were practicing, not all of them full-time.
When the dust settled, it appears we lost six of them to attrition and retirement, says Mayor Jeff Genung, and the others have relocated elsewhere in the community,
In the meantime, it appears three new doctors have been attracted with the assistance of Alberta Health Service (AHS). Its officials hope to recruit three more.
"Some help is on the way," says Genung. "They didn't have a timeline for when those doctors would be placed. It's up to the doctors now to follow through on that."
For those that have lost their family physician, Genung suggests the best way to find a new one is through AHS's Find a Doctor online tool available here.
Genung says about 220 Cochranites are currently on that list.
In addition, the town has been collecting data and developing a strategy to attract more family physicians.
In June, Kristin Huybrecht, town manager of Intergovernmental Relations and Corporate Communications, conducted a survey of the physicians at Cochrane's eight medical clinics.
At the time, we had about 23 family physicians and she says 16 responded. Indications are a few more physicians have arrived since then.
Huybrecht says the town wanted to first make sure it understood the dynamics currently impacting physician recruitment and retention in Cochrane and who best to reach out to first than those with practices in town.
"We reached out to every clinic in Cochrane and asked them to provide us with some insights into their role within the community and the role that they thought local government could play in supporting physician recruitment and retention," says Huybrecht.
Questions also provided insight into the views of physicians on the opportunities and challenges of establishing a clinic here and factors contributing to physicians leaving the community.
"What we heard loud and clear is Cochrane is a great place to live, work, and play and we know that and we appreciate that, but there are further opportunities to support this from a business development perspective and to work with the provincial government to support our local physicians."
The town will be following up with physicians to advise them of the results and outline what the town intends to do next.
With the assistance of MLA Peter Guthrie, a meeting was arranged with senior AHS officials to gather facts and get to the root of the issue, says Genung.
He says the officials were caught off guard by Cochrane's situation because it tends to be a challenge faced by smaller rural communities, where it has been an ongoing issue for decades.
Health services can track the number of doctors in the community. There could be up to a 90-day gap in data.
"The number of doctors in Cochrane was actually quite high, but they can't tell from their stats if they're specialists or family physicians. I think where we're seeing our hitch is on the family physician side. That's where we have our work cut out for us."
Genung believes the town needs to launch a marketing campaign to attract doctors fresh out of medical school. Additionally, there is a mentorship program available through AHS.
"We need to work with some of our existing physicians and work with our economic development office to start targeting that sector."
Genung says new doctors are practicing medicine differently and keeping half the number of patients. In the past, it was about 2,000. Now it's about 1,000. That makes it especially important to be proactive.
"The workload and how they're working is different, so we might need 1.5 or 2 times the doctors than we would have been carrying before to keep the same load."