By Mike Baker
Attracting doctors to Haliburton County is Cheryl Kennedy’s specialty.
Since taking on the role of physician recruitment coordinator in May 2019, Kennedy has welcomed four new physicians to the community. Selling people on the natural beauty of the Highlands has never been an issue, Kennedy recently told the Echo. In her previous role with the Haliburton Family Medical Centre, where she spent 35 years as office manager and, later, executive director, Kennedy was instrumental in shaping the facility’s teaching practice. She helped to keep several budding physicians in the community well beyond the expiration of their two-month rural residency.
Already in 2021, Kennedy has helped to bring two new family doctors to Haliburton County. Dr. Haley Hatch moved to the community in January, taking over Dr. Aoife Conway’s family practice. Dr. Conway recently retired following a decades-long career in the community. Then, in February, Dr. Muriel Charles arrived in Haliburton, taking over Dr. Kristy Gammon’s practice. In a notice posted to the Haliburton Highlands Family Health Team Facebook page, Dr. Gammon noted that she wasn’t retiring, and was instead taking the opportunity to work in other ways in the community.
There were a couple of new faces at the Haliburton and Minden hospitals last year too, with Dr. Ana Costea and Dr. Kristin Lythgoe joining the ER departments.
While it wasn’t the sole reason the community’s newest doctors decided to move to Haliburton, the county’s physician recruitment program, and the perks it provides, has certainly helped to seal the deal for a number of recruits since it was introduced several of years ago.
Through the program, physicians who commit to practicing in Haliburton County receive $25,000 annually over a six year period, up to a maximum of $150,000.
Initially conceptualized as a way to attract young doctors to the community, the program has evolved over the years, explained Carol Moffatt, Algonquin Highlands mayor and Haliburton County councillor.
“It’s been a slow maturation, but we’re there now. The program is now delivering in the way it was always supposed to. We had a bit of a refresh last year, to recalibrate some aspects of it – mostly centering on who we will recruit, and who gets the allowance,” Moffatt said.
Kennedy said she was actively working to bring three more physicians to the community by 2022. The one stumbling block she’s faced with right now is where she will put these doctors once they arrive.
The booming housing market across Haliburton County has left Kennedy in the awkward position of not being able to find potential physicians a place to live while they’re not working. While the county doesn’t help financially with accommodations, part of Kennedy’s job is to help these doctors acclimatize to the community.
Finding affordable long-term rentals in the area is a near impossibility in today’s market, Kennedy explained. Most doctors, when they move to the area, would rather find a place to rent for a year so they can take their time finding a more permanent home. With this in mind, the county committed, in December 2020, to finding a property it could purchase and then rent out to newly-arrived physicians. While Kennedy hasn’t been able to find a suitable property just yet, she’s hopeful of securing something soon.
“There are rentals available – in fact we recently had a number of people reach out to us to offer us their cottage for a year. The problem is that they want to be able to use the cottage in July and August, which is a completely understandable request, but it’s hard to put a physician in a house and expect them to leave for a couple of months during the summer,” Kennedy said.
Moffatt isn’t surprised by how tough the market is right now, noting the growth the community has seen since the onset of the pandemic last March has put a strain on available inventory.
“We almost have a chicken and egg situation here that can’t solve itself out right now, and just keeps going in circles,” Moffatt said. “We have seen growth in the community. There are more people staying here and living here right now, which means there’s more demand for medical professional services. But where do those medical professionals live once they get here?”
She added, “There are a number and variety of factors chasing each other around in circles, and we have to find some way to get ahead of it.”
While Kennedy will continue working on finding a permanent solution, Moffatt called on the community to lend a hand in the interim.
“I would hope that people that have properties available would take a moment to consider the long-term value of working with Cheryl to accommodate physicians for the greater benefit of the community. If somebody takes less money, and I know that’s a big request, for a short time to help the community grow, to help with recruitment, then there will be longer-term and increasing opportunities for financial gain all around going forward,” Moffatt said. “It’s almost a short-term pain for a longer-term community investment gain.”