Innovative recruitment efforts bring Atikokan to full complement of doctors

“The biggest problem we’re having right now is that capacity in the north in general is a challenge. You’ll find that some communities are very well staffed with doctors for a year or two, then suddenly they are down to two or three doctors.” Lisa Peterson, clinic manager, Atikokan Medical Associates.

BY GRAHAM STRONG

Evolving recruitment and retention approaches will help boost physician numbers in Atikokan to its full complement of seven in January 2019, up from just two doctors a few years ago.
In fact, the community may have eight doctors on its roster as of February, allowing two physicians to go half-time.
Although this is encouraging news, Lisa Peterson, who heads up physician recruitment in the town of about 2,700 people two hours west of Thunder Bay, said that it’s all part of the ebb and flow in smaller Northern Ontario communities.
“The biggest problem we’re having right now is that capacity in the north in general is a challenge. You’ll find some communities are very well staffed with doctors for a year or two, then suddenly they are down to two or three doctors,” said Peterson, clinic manager at Atikokan Medical Associates. “Being in the north, being smaller practices, you have to get them here to try it here first.”
Locums are one way to do that – two of the last three doctors to take positions in Atikokan previously worked as locums.
“We demonstrated to them how being part of the community and offering this contract where they can come and go is just as lucrative as working as a locum, if not twice as much money,” Peterson said.
Salary is not the only incentive. Flexible schedules are also important including locum-like schedules where physicians will rotate in and out of the community. Ironically, it was the town’s experience with a severe shortage of physicians that helped them learn how to be creative in scheduling.
“We were so locum dependent, we got used to juggling all these crazy schedules. Now, we’ve gotten good at that,” Peterson said. “We try to give as much balance and as much flexibility to be fair to all docs and the community.”
Atikokan also offers many “intangible” supports as other smaller towns in Northern Ontario do, including help finding accommodations as needed, planned group fishing trips and other excursions, and ensuring doctors have a place to go for Thanksgiving, for example, if they don’t want to be alone for the holidays.
Being a teaching site for the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) also helps with recruitment in the same way that attracting locums does: it exposes students to the community so that it is at least on their radar.
Peterson said they work hard to provide students with exceptional learning experiences.
“When that visiting learner comes, we don’t put them with one physician, we put them with several. We try to give them a week with each physician, some of them being our locums, so that they see different practice styles,” she said.
She added that they treat students almost like a group physician, slotting them into opportunities that interest them most.
“We sit down with them and ask what they want,” Peterson said. For example, if a student has a particular interest in diabetes, they will match the student with a physician who may specialize in diabetes care.
“We’ll cater to them and give the best experience we can in medicine, and then outside of that we do as many extracurricular things as we can.”
One of the things Peterson stresses among potential physicians is the variety. Doctors provide primary care but they also do on-call shifts in the emergency department at the Atikokan General Hospital.
Pooling recruitment resources is also a way to help bring more doctors to northwestern Ontario, Peterson said.
“We’re trying to develop a recruitment plan for the region,” she said. “When we go to a recruitment event, maybe instead of four communities going with separate booths, two of us go with one booth and we have a book with all the communities in it.”
Not only is competing against each other counterproductive, there isn’t a lot of differentiation between communities in the eyes of potential recruits outside the region. For example, physicians at a recruitment fair in Montreal will see communities such as Atikokan, Dryden or Fort Frances as simply “northwestern Ontario” so playing up the similarities is more helpful than trying to highlight differences. Pooling resources like this will save money on travel and marketing.
Social media is playing a role in some cases as well. Karen Lusignan, executive director of the Atikokan Family Health Team, said one nurse practitioner applied after seeing an ad on Facebook. A second nurse practitioner starting in September subsequently applied after seeing positive Facebook posts from the first one.
Ebb and flow will likely continue to be the story when it comes to health care recruitment in northern Ontario. For the moment though, Atikokan’s strategy is paying off.
“We’re in a really good place right now from where we’ve been in the last five years,” Peterson said.

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