While some communities continue to struggle, one Sask. town finds health care success

A combination of recruitment and incentives — getting nurses to come and then convincing them to stay — has helped at least one Saskatchewan community bring its health-care services back up to speed.

Last January, the community of Biggar was informed by the provincial government that its emergency room services would be closed. Elected officials took the lead on a proactive response but also took advantage of a provincial program to address such issues.

The town of approximately 2,150 people, located one hour east of Saskatoon, formulated a plan to accommodate health-care professionals in a housing unit. Since then, three new registered nurses have been recruited to Biggar to ensure 24/7 emergency room services and the operation of eight acute care beds in the community. The town is expecting a nurse recruit from the Philippines in February.

“We worked together to fix the problem, to fill the void,” Biggar Mayor Jim Rickwood said. “It wasn’t (the Saskatchewan Health Authority) that did it for us. It was us as a team that did it.”

Rickwood credits the SHA for its proactive engagement and support. While municipal leaders can work to help recruit, train and retain health-care professionals, they rely on the provincial government to provide financial incentives for practitioners to stay in or near rural areas, he said.

“Recruitment: that’s the big key. To recruit people to come out to rural Saskatchewan or even keep them in Saskatoon. If you’re going to recruit people, they’re going to come to your facility because you’re a good organization, you’re strong, you’re supportive.”

The SHA backed up the community’s work as part of its action plan, billed as Health Human Resources. The province recently touted some of its successes under the program, noting Biggar, Lanigan, Watrous, Canora, Kamsack, Wolseley, Oxbow, and Porcupine Plain are beneficiaries of recent recruitment efforts and virtual health-care access technologies.

A rural and remote recruitment incentive offers up to $50,000 to new employees in nine priority health occupations across 54 rural and remote communities in the province. Another incentive is the allocation of $10,000 for each health-care worker and their family to relocate to Canada.

While Biggar has experienced some successes, Premier Scott Moe’s government remains under consistent fire for what critics call its negligence on priority issues such as health care.

NDP MLAs Vicki Mowat and Matt Love last month addressed what they called a “crisis.” The strain has been affecting cities large and small across Saskatchewan, they said.

Mowat and Love noted that acute care services have been deemed temporarily unavailable in the town of Broadview since June 2021. In Wilkie, emergency and outpatient services have also been temporarily unavailable since June 2021. In Lanigan, Redvers and Wolseley, long-term services and hours of operation have all been reduced.

“We are working to ensure residents of rural communities have the services they need and appreciate their ongoing patience and understanding as we work to restore and stabilize these important local health services,” SHA vice-president Brenda Shawn said recently in a statement.

Earlier this month, the government said 43 internationally-educated nurses from the Philippines have been recruited to Saskatchewan and commenced on-site clinical training. The nurses are due to become licensed to start working before the end of the year.

Since the launch of Philippines recruitment program, more than 400 health-care workers have received conditional offers of employment from the SHA, according to the governemnt. Another 19 newcomers from the Ukraine have also been hired into the SHA workforce.

Rickwood said the government’s Philippine health-care worker incentive has worked well in Biggar, with health-care practitioners working in the town that includes a notable Filipino community.

Kimiya Shokoohi is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. The LJI program is federally funded by the Government of Canada.

Kimiya Shokoohi, The StarPhoenix