The Interior Health Authority’s new president and CEO, Chris Mazurkewich, is focused on implementing a new type of primary health care model in Merritt. The city is currently in the midst of losing two long-time medical practices.

One practice closed officially at the end of March and the other will close at the end of April — leaving thousands without a family physician.

Under this new model, the number of patients per physician could potentially be expanded by offloading some of a doctor’s work to other health care providers like nurse practitioners or dieticians.

“The physician has to [make] the diagnosis, but he may then say the treatment plan can be worked by these [other practicioners],” Mazurkewich told the Herald.

In the case of rural communities, he said specialists would make trips to those places, or patients would have appointments via video-conference call.

Currently one nurse practitioner works in Merritt, and Mazurkewich said that deciding whether or not to add others will be the result of future conversations.

Mazurkewich said that recruiting family physicians to rural B.C. communities has been successful, and Canada as a whole has more doctors than ever.

“People are saying there’s a shortage, so if we’ve got the most we’ve ever had and they’re still saying there’s a shortage, then we have to change the model,” he said.

“Other countries have changed the model. Some of our communities have changed the model and that seems to be working quite well, so that’s what we’re interested in exploring, because we’re not going to get all the [general practitioners] that people are asking for within B.C. It’s just not going to happen in the next five years.”

He said changing the model throughout the IHA’s jurisdiction is expected to take place over the next few years.

“We have to pick which communities are ready in terms of physician leadership,” Mazurkewich said.

He said the IHA is still actively trying to recruit physicians.

“I think last year we recruited more physicians to [Interior Health] than we’d ever done, and I think we also recruited the most additions to any health authority. Guess what, we still have a shortage,” Mazurkewich said. “That’s why recruitment is important, retention’s important, but fundamentally changing the model, particularly around primary care and mental health service, is critically important as well.”

Dr. Malcolm Ogborn, IHA executive medical director, said the number of full-time physicians designated for Merritt in the IHA’s physician resource plan is nine, but the city has never had more than seven.

He said locums working in the hospital’s emergency department have bridged that gap.

“I think the sort of challenges you’re seeing here is very, very typical of small communities,” Ogborn said. “You have physicians who’ve been in a place for a long time. They’ve built up a single, solid practice out of an office, [but] the trouble is the people who are graduating don’t have a lot of an inclination to go in and buy an established office practice,” Ogborn said.

Mazurkewich said that he thinks the difficulty in recruiting physicians to small communities is the reason IHA is looking to move to more of a primary care model.

Mazurkewich and other members of the IHA stopped in at the Nicola Valley Hospital on Monday as part of a tour around the health authority.