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Letter: Painstaking progress undercut by health minister’s comments

Ten years ago, a journey started in this province with the goal to improve primary health care for our citizens. Our politicians, medical school administrators, physicians and citizens all wanted the same thing: stable, accessible and high quality primary care for our province, both urban and rural.

Courageous and innovative people made the move to redistribute family physician training to rural communities in hopes that we would entice local homegrown doctors to stay and care for our aging population.

Much of my optimism has been destroyed in the past four months by Health Minister John Haggie, whose comments and rhetoric about family physicians have left many of us questioning whether the Department of Health values our role, and certainly has left many young physicians questioning whether they wish to follow this career path at all.

As a medical educator and local leader, I have been intimately involved in the shift to rural training since its inception. In recent years I have found myself getting excited that real change is coming. I was starting to feel we could make a difference to primary care in our rural communities.

Much of my optimism has been destroyed in the past four months by Health Minister John Haggie, whose comments and rhetoric about family physicians have left many of us questioning whether the Department of Health values our role, and certainly has left many young physicians questioning whether they wish to follow this career path at all.

I have been a family physician in Grand Falls-Windsor for 14 years. I’ve worked in all aspects of family medicine and have found great joy in quarterbacking care for many of my fellow citizens. I have worked with my community to advance mental health initiatives and have worked in collaborative care teams with many health-care providers.

I have seen many family physicians set up in my town only to leave in short order for greener pastures, leaving thousands of patients without family physicians. Those of us who work here have known from the beginning that training local people in their home regions and province, exposing them to the joys of rural medicine and caring for our population, would entice those young physicians to stay.

We were making progress, keeping some of our trainees in the communities of Twillingate, Botwood, Gander, Grand Falls-Windsor, Corner Brook and Port aux Basques, to name a few. Progress was happening, albeit slowly.

There seems to be a culture in some medical schools which pushes students to the higher paying and seemingly more prestigious specialty programs. I was asked many times before choosing my path, “Are you going to be a specialist or just a GP”?

Almost 20 years later I can say there is no such thing as “just a GP.” My days are filled with patients who have been lost to other parts of the system, who have nowhere to turn but to me. They present with both complex medical and psychosocial problems that would make any physician’s head spin. I know these people. I know their families and communities, and I understand their belief system. This comes with years of talking and listening. It comes with tears and laughter over many office visits. I am not just a GP. I am the medical home for many of these patients and we have a mutual understanding that I will be their advocate in a very convoluted system.

I hope the young physicians deciding on whether to embark on a career in family medicine will remember that caring for the whole patient through the many phases of their lives is a privilege that few health-care providers get to encounter. I hope medical students will disregard the ignorance of politicians who have never walked in the shoes of family physicians and do not understand that value of the care we provide.

Next week, I travel to St John’s to meet with potential residents for central Newfoundland. These physicians may be the doctors of our future and may change rural health care in positive ways. I fear the political culture our health minister has created will affect the choices of these young minds and sway them to think that family medicine does not have value. I fear our health minister has ruined many years of hard work to engage medical students with a very important career in primary care.

I hope that these young minds can see through the rhetoric to the value and privilege inherent in family medicine. Our health-care system will only be stronger if family medicine flourishes.

 

Dr. Lynette Powell

Rural Newfoundlander

Proud family physician

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