Physicians from the Cypress Regional Medical Association had an opportunity to discuss issues facing their profession with the president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association (SMA).
The supper meeting with SMA President Dr. Allan Woo on Sept. 12 was the start of the fall tour across the province by SMA leaders to visit each of the 11 regional medical associations.
The meeting was not open to the media, but Dr. Woo was available for media interviews before the start of the event.
“We do this every year,” he told the Prairie Post. “It’s part of the president’s and vice-president’s tour across the province to reach out and engage with our colleagues in the various parts of the province. It’s an opportunity to hear what their concerns are and what’s important to them. We meet the board about once a month and we always like to have feedback, to make sure we’re going in the right direction.”
Some of the topics that will be discussed at the different tour stops will be of provincial interest to all physicians, but the intention is also to leave it open for physicians to raise their concerns.
“Some of the areas that we’re focusing on are negotiations,” he said. “We’re in negotiations with government for a new physician contract. We have issues with bylaws that we’re revamping and reorganizing. Then other issues like physician health and wellness, and manpower planning. A lot of different topics are ongoing, never one specific topic that is going to be dealt with at any one time, and there’s always changes and new developments that happen.”
The SMA is involved in ongoing negotiations with the provincial government through the Medical Compensation Review Committee (MCRC) to revise the rates in the payment schedule.
“That’s the committee that does the negotiations between the physicians and the government to discuss things like fee codes and any increased moneys for programs,” he explained. “How we want to compensate physicians is what it comes down to. It’s not just about the money. It’s all about how to give physicians the best chance to provide best patient care.”
The previous agreement expired on March 31, 2017, and the terms of the old agreement will continue to apply until the parties can reach consensus on a new agreement.
“We thought we made some positive gains over the last eight to nine months,” he said. “We’re still working towards the final goal, but we’re hopeful. That’s all we can say at this point. We have discussed some things with our membership. With any negotiations there has to be an agreement. Then we have to send it out to the membership for ratification. So we hope to get it done. It certainly would be nice to get it done under my presidency.”
The negotiations have been very respectful, and the two parties have a good understanding of the other side’s position. He felt the two sides will be able to reach an agreement through ongoing dialogue.
“So we try to build upon it, but we understand government is facing challenges, just like they do with every other union that’s out there, and any other organization that they have to negotiate with,” he said. “It’s a time-consuming process.”
The SMA continues to give attention to the evolving relationship with the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), which was launched in December 2017 to create a single provincial health authority.
There are ongoing discussions about bylaws and rules that regulate the relationship between physicians and SHA.
“Before there were basically 12 different bylaws, one for each regional association and health authority, and now that we’re one, we need to make it all fit for the whole province as a whole,” he explained. “So that’s part of the challenge. It’s ongoing. I think again dialogue has been very respectful.”
The SMA is optimistic that the SHA is aware of the concerns of physicians. For that reason, the SHA has included physicians in the organization’s leadership structure.
“There is the physician component as well as the administrative component, and so hopefully the physicians’ side of things can be heard, and any programs and decision policies will have a strong physician voice at the table,” he said.
One of the main concerns for physicians is the issue of resource planning, and they want to have a voice in decisions about resources.
“I think physicians want a bigger input and make sure that their voices are heard as to what the needs are,” Dr. Woo said. “Physicians in the community have the best idea of what is needed. Part of that physician manpower is to deal with physician wellness, which is a big thing for the SMA. It’s one of our strategic pillars, and we want to make sure that there’s enough physicians in the communities to provide the best patient care, but not to have physicians at risk of burnout or undue stress because of work overload or other issues that come into play.”
The SMA is in the process of expanding its physician support program, which provides assistance to medical students, residents, physicians and their families struggling with mental, physical, or personal stress. The program currently operates with a single staff person from Saskatoon, but the intention is to have another staff member available in Regina to provide support.
“It has done well in terms of supporting physicians who are at need, but we can always do more,” he said. “It has given physicians an avenue to access help and care without feeling stigmatized. They can do this quietly and privately and so I think it has done a fantastic job in helping physicians get better. That’s what it comes down to. A sick physician can’t help the sick community. So a physician who is healthy can do the best work.”
The SMA currently has 2,400 active members in the province, who vary from family doctors to specialists. There are also about 800 medical students and residents who look to the SMA for some support and guidance.
“We always can use more,” he said about the number of physicians in the province. “The expectations of physicians are changing. How we want to work. How physicians work is also changing. That’s the ongoing dialogue that we have to have with government and the health authority.”
There are changing expectations in the workforce about the work-life balance, and physicians are no different.
“We need more specific kinds of physicians, including primary care physicians and that’s why the College of Medicine went up 100 students a few years ago,” he noted. “There’s a recognition that there’s a bigger need. Our challenge at SMA and the health authority is how do we recruit and how do we retain our physicians.”