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Island Health executive answers tough questions about the North Island in exclusive interview

James Hanson has been a vice president with Island Health for six years now
James Hanson is the vice-president of North Island clinical operations for Island Health. (Tyson Whitney - North Island Gazette)

The North Island’s health-care crisis continues on, but there does appear to be a bit more clarity in sight.

Gazette editor Tyson Whitney recently sat down with James Hanson, Island Health’s vice-president of North Island Clinical Operations, last Wednesday (March 1) for an in-depth interview, discussing a vast range of different health-care topics.

Hanson has been a vice president with Island Health for six years now, and has been in charge of clinical operations for the North Island for roughly the last three years.

He travelled to the region with Island Health’s executive team to hold meetings with the organization’s employees, primarily to discuss the implementation of initiatives that were recently announced by Health Minister Adrian Dix, which totalled $30 million dollars in new supports for the North Island.

While visiting, the executive team travelled to Cormorant Island, Port McNeill and then to Port Hardy, where Hanson says they were met with a lot of great questions and had some good dialogue at the meetings with their employees.

One question that came up was why the organization has recently been moving ALC patients from the Port Hardy Hospital over to Eagle Ridge Manor, where the residents are now having to share the room that they have with someone else.

When asked to comment on this, Hanson confirmed it’s true, stating that “ALC patients are what we call Alternative Level of Care patients, so generally speaking they are patients that are going to long-term care beds,” he said. “It would be appropriate to move ALC patients into long-term care beds if they became available, but from what we heard and saw [from employees], the rooms aren’t necessarily appropriate to execute the plan of putting four new patients into those locations.”

As such, Island Health has only moved two ALC patients into a room that could be appropriately split, and they heard loud and clear from staff to stop moving other patients.

Another meeting that occurred was with Port McNeill mayor and council, where Island Health was able to sit down and listen to what the town’s elected officials have been hearing from the residents of the community.

“[The meeting] was basically to find out if we’re on the right track or if we need to do something different,” stated Hanson.

The executive team then met with the ‘Namgis First Nation “to talk about the health centre on Cormorant Island and the hours of operation,” Hanson said, who then confirmed that Cormorant Island still only has one doctor on staff. “What I can say for that community specifically though is we are actually starting to see quite a bit of uptake and interest, they’re currently recruiting two nurses from out of town.”

Cormorant Island and Port Hardy still don’t have overnight emergency department services available yet, but Hanson assured that Island Health’s goal is to “get back to 24/7 services in all three of the bigger communities in the region.”

As for the longstanding idea of whether the North Island should simply build one central hospital for the entire region, Hanson said he doesn’t foresee that happening in the near future.

“It’s not in the works for now, we are building redundancy in the system by ensuring we have more staff at all of the facilities,” he stated. “We are committed to operating the three hospital sites, four when you include Port Alice.”

The main issue Island Health’s been dealing with is the constant struggle to find staff and physicians for all three hospitals. For example, agency nurses were used for years almost solely in rural communities, but now they’re being used everywhere in the province and across Canada.

“The explosion of the use of agency nurses in the Canadian system means that people who do that job can choose where they want to work more than they ever have,” Hanson said. “They’re choosing to work in places like Vancouver, Kelowna, Victoria, or Nanaimo instead of Port Hardy, Port McNeill and Cormorant Island.”

Island Health is currently dealing with the same issue when it comes to physician recruitment.

“We were able to pull from locum positions and return to service positions in the past, but now there’s far more options available to them in other regions,” Hanson pointed out, stating this is ultimately what’s hurting health-care systems in the majority of rural and remote communities.

It’s not all bad news, though. Hanson said that the new incentives Island Health is currently offering have started to net them some positive results when it comes to recruiting. He specifically mentioned retention bonuses for employees.

“We did have some feedback on that [retention bonuses],” he said. “There was some conversation from employees who are casual that it doesn’t quite apply to them, only the full-time folks, so we’re going to take that feedback and look at how we can tweak it… I’m hopeful I will be able to come back in two months and talk about how successful we’ve been.”

Hanson said another issue Island Health has been dealing with is constant negative media coverage.

“When people wonder where Port Hardy is and they do a google search, [Island Health] obviously has a media profile that’s a bit negative,” he stated, adding they have also heard complaints from employees about the town’s lack of daycare options, how the infrastructure doesn’t suit young families, and that there’s not enough appropriate housing.

“That is our challenge, how do we overcome that narrative so that people who are interested can reach out and we can have a warm conversation about what it looks like to work here.”

When it comes to outspoken Port Hardy doctor Alex Nataros, who’s been busy blowing the whistle on health-care issues and making waves since moving to town back in August, Hanson wasn’t really able to divulge too much.

“What I can say is it’s a challenging situation,” he said. “We generally don’t comment on patient issues, but what I’ve heard from staff, and what I’ve told them that they can communicate to others, is that in some instances no care is better than unsafe care, and that’s why we close emergency departments when we don’t have enough staff, and that’s why we have to review situations when they come up where patients have been harmed or there’s been complaints.”

Nataros is currently in the midst of an external review regarding his emergency room privileges being suspended at all Island Health hospitals, and he has written a letter to his patients stating that as of Feb. 23, he is no longer practicing medicine in any Island Health facilities until there is a new health authority leadership, as he feels it is no longer safe for him to do so.

“Effective immediately, I will be seeing patients registered in my practice in the new ‘Dr. Nataros’ Medical Clinic’ located in unit #3 of the Thunderbird Mall,” wrote Nataros. “This is an interim space to be used until June 1, 2023 when Dr. Howie Lee and I will be opening the Quatse Community Health Centre in the Thunderbird Mall.”

Nataros added he is deeply committed to the North Island communities and has agreed to a 10 year lease for the Quatse Community Health Centre.

“I am grateful for your trust. I hold it to be sacred.”

Hanson said physicians are free to provide primary care in any community setting they want, “and we will never get in the way of that … we need more physicians here period.”

As for Port McNeill doctor Prean Armogam and his issues with Island Health, Hanson said Armogam has been a longstanding physician in the North Island for nearly two decades, “and I respect a lot of the comments and suggestions he has, he’s not wrong.”

Armogam’s physician contract with the community of Sointula on Malcolm Island has been a point of contention on social media lately, and Hanson said it’s ultimately Armogam’s decision whether he wants to renew it.

“He provides a valuable service to that community and the community really respects the service he provides, so yes, we would like to be in a position where we have a contract with him for that community … We are providing Prean the opportunity to continue working in Sointula.”

There’s currently a health-care rally scheduled for March 11 in Port McNeill at the North Island Secondary School gymnasium at 11 a.m.

Hanson said he doesn’t know enough about it to comment on it too much, but if the rally is about getting more physicians, staff, and services, “then we share the same concerns and we want to provide those things, and that’s absolutely why we’ve invested in these communities.”

Above all else, Hanson said he wants the communities to know that Island Health is “investing in infrastructure and people, we want to retain the staff of people who work here and we want to attract new people to the region … What I would like is for the communities to celebrate what they have and help us market the communities in a way that attracts all of the people that we need.”


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Tyson Whitney

About the Author: Tyson Whitney

I have been working in the community newspaper business for nearly a decade, all of those years with Black Press Media.
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