PRINCE RUPERT, B.C. -- Doctors from Northern Health gave a presentation to Prince Rupert city council earlier this week outlining some of the challenges that the health care system in the city is facing, along with some ways in which it’s expected to grow in the future.  

Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii Health Services Administrator Julia Pemberton says COVID-19 has created staffing challenges for the city. The pandemic has exacerbated many of the challenges it was already facing.

“COVID-19 has really provided an additional challenge to our existing staff to retain them, as well as finding new staff who want to come join us in the north,” she said.

“We are seeing a loss of staff due to burnout and pandemic fatigue, as well as a few staff due to the most recent Public Health Officer order. However, this, as we know, is not unique. This is a shared experience across all sites in the north, but we do expect it to take some time to return to our baseline staffing levels.”

Another issue discussed was the departure or retirement of many doctors in Prince Rupert. These include the retirement of an OB/GYN, the resignation of an internal medicine provider, and the resignation of various GPs who specialized in fields such as c-sections, obstetrics and emergency room work.

“We've lost two of our three C section providers. The only one left here at the moment is me,” said Gillaume Coetzee, the chief of staff at Prince Rupert Regional Hospital.

However, the presenters also said there are many new doctors coming to town. These include a new OB/GYN; a general surgeon; two internal medicine specialists; a surgeon who specializes in obstetrics and ER work; and a general practitioner who specializes in obstetrics; ER work and primary care.

Upgrades are coming to the hospital as well.

“So we will see the main floor basically from rehab up really redone in 2022, which is going to make a big difference in terms of how our patients experience care, flow through our hospital, wayfind, and how our staff and our physicians are able to provide care to them,” said Pemberton.

The hospital will also receive a brand new laboratory, after a fire in the current lab back in May caused “significant” damage.

Some ambitions plans were discussed for the future of health care in the city. The doctors said they want to increase the amount of surgeries in Prince for fields such as urology, plastic surgery, and ear, nose and throat surgery.

"I think it's become a big priority for us to try and give as much as possible services here in Prince Rupert and in the region and supported locally from the region itself, so that we can become almost a self sufficient region with quality care,” said Coetzee.

They also discussed a plan to expand health care services in the Northwest, which will create more options for medical travel within the region.

"We're going to see people from Terrace getting surgery in Hazelton. Maybe some Prince Rupert patients can get quicker access in a place like Hazleton and just might decide and have a choice to travel there, rather than wait an extra month to get it in Terrace, for instance," said Jaco Fourie, Northern Health’s Northwest Medical Director.

 There was also discussion of potentially reviving the Healthy Communities Integration Committee, which would collect feedback from the community to improve health care in Prince Rupert.

“I'd like to provide a forum that isn't just Facebook as a way for the community to work with different partners and the health authorities to understand what their experiences with their ideas are and what their challenges are,” said Pemberton.

Pemberton also added that the region she oversees has been “minimally impacted” by the Public Health Officer’s order requiring all health care workers to get vaccinated or go on unpaid leave.

“My biggest concern for losing staff is burnout and fatigue. It’s not the PHO order.”

Coetzee said Prince Rupert lost no physicians as a result of the vaccine mandate.

When asked what advice they had for the community when it comes to battling COVID, the doctors’ response was simple: if you haven’t had your shots yet, get vaccinated.