District of Kitimat considers innovative healthcare recruitment strategy

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The District of Kitimat has received a much-anticipated report on the critical shortage of healthcare professionals in the community. The comprehensive study aims to identify why the crisis persists and how Kitimat can become an attractive destination for medical staff through innovative recruitment and retention efforts.

Following a brief review of the report during a regular council meeting on Feb. 5, council members instructed staff to return with a detailed financial budget of the options and recommendations for debate and consideration at a future meeting.

Kitimat Mayor Phil Germuth expressed optimism about the initiative, stating, “I look forward to seeing the progress … working with others to spread the word across Canada, to promote what a great place Kitimat is for healthcare professionals to come. We have the plan, we have the staff… we’re on the path to success.”

The study, ‘Kitimat Healthcare Professionals Attraction and Retention Strategy,’ was conducted by Doug Blackie Consulting and a local working group. It highlights several complex factors contributing to healthcare worker shortages, including demographic changes, shifting work expectations, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing workloads, and enduring stereotypes of rural life.

Despite healthcare provision being a provincial responsibility, Kitimat is among a growing number of municipalities taking steps in recruitment and retention efforts, reflecting concern over perceived negligence by the provincial government and regional health authorities.

The report’s collaborative efforts began in July, involving partnerships with the Haisla Nation, the Kitimat Health Advocacy Group, Northern Health Authority, and local industry and agencies to develop effective strategies for attracting healthcare professionals to the area.

The report outlines seven recommendations, starting with the establishment of a health recruitment coordinator role, followed by a health recruitment incentive program. A key part of the strategy is forming a multi-sector collaborative effort with the Kitimat Health Advocacy Group (KHAG) to maintain a focus on attracting and retaining healthcare talent.

Further support for healthcare professionals is suggested through incentives for housing construction or renovation, making it easier for workers to settle in the area. The strategy also proposes encouraging investment in local healthcare infrastructure and assertively lobbying the Ministry of Health and Northern Health to attract internationally educated healthcare professionals to Kitimat.

Education and training are emphasized through proposed partnerships with UBC, UNBC, and Coast Mountain College to expand healthcare training spaces in Kitimat and develop programs that encourage existing residents to pursue healthcare careers, aiming for a long-term solution to the shortage.

The proposed incentive program suggests options ranging from $122,000 to $183,000 annually, including hiring an attraction and retention coordinator, financial incentives, and welcome packages.

Each of these recommendations comes with varying costs attached.

Councillor Graham Pitzel raised concerns about the potential for inter-municipal competition, questioning the financial implications for Kitimat taxpayers. “How much money do we actually need to hopefully, potentially attract someone to Kitimat … because Kitimat taxpayers already pay taxes into the healthcare system and now there’s an even larger financial burden on them.”

Conversely, Councillor Mario Feldhoff praised the report’s focus on Kitimat’s unique challenges, but in a prepared statement also stressed the urgency for better collaboration from the province and Northern Health, a complaint echoed by the mayor and other councillors.

“It is unfortunate that the District of Kitimat is forced to take on what is arguably the responsibility of the Northern Health Authority and provincial government,” Feldhoff said. “But I fear without the strategy before us our community will be left behind, and not meet the medical needs of our citizens.”

READ MORE: Kitimat ER closes 44 times in 2023

The report was not developed to resolve ongoing emergency department closures at the Kitimat General Hospital. However, it noted the recommendations, if executed, will help address the matter by increasing stability overall in healthcare services.

Responding to this and a reported 19 emergency department closures in the first month of 2024, Feldhoff reiterated council’s continued stance of prioritizing the issue.

“I don’t recall ever being more upset in all my years being on council. Sadly, I get the sense [Northern Health] isn’t putting in the full energies into resolving this crisis.”

Councillor Terry Marleau echoed these concerns, emphasizing the importance of partnerships to meet the recruitment challenges.

Council now awaits a detailed financial budget and implications before proceeding with implementation of any recommendations.

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