Doctors' tactics lack support from public — poll

News release

British Columbians support long-term solutions not short-term fixes to rural physician supply problem

As more B.C. communities brace themselves for work withdrawals by physicians, new polling numbers released today by the Hospital Employees' Union suggests that the doctors' strategy is suffering from a lack of public support.

And as the provincial government grapples with its health care spending priorities in the wake of a major infusion of new federal money, the same poll suggests that the public would favour spending on a variety of progressive primary health care reforms rather than bolstering physicians' pay packets. The telephone poll of 506 British Columbians was conducted for HEU by the polling firm McIntyre and Mustel between September 5 through 9, just as rural physicians began to escalate their withdrawal of services across B.C. The results are considered accurate 4.4 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

By a margin of nearly three to one, British Columbians felt that increasing wages for rural physicians was a band aid solution to the problems of physician workload, recruitment and retention. This majority favoured long-term solutions such as more community health centres, improved home support services and an expanded role for nurse practitioners and licensed practical nurses. Only 23 per cent of those polled felt increasing fees for rural physicians will solve these problems.

The public is also at odds with rural physicians' tactic of withdrawing services — only 39 per cent support doctors withdrawing services if their demands are not met while 55 per cent opposed the tactic. The highest support for physician job action was in northern B.C. at 45 per cent (with 51 per cent opposed).

Fifty-two per cent opposed doctors breaking away from the current British Columbia Medical Association fee schedule in order to negotiate new fees.

"Our members can attest to the fact that it's always difficult for health care workers to take job action," says Allnutt. "But when some physicians blur the line between their interests as private entrepreneurs with their role as care providers in the broader health care system, there will be some public cynicism about their motives."

"We call on physicians to consider a broader approach to improving health care services in the communities in which they work. In the short-term, we urge the physicians who have withdrawn their services to return to the bargaining table."

Allnutt also believes there's a message in the numbers for the provincial government. "Clearly, British Columbians understand that there are no quick fixes to the challenge of modernizing public Medicare but they want action now," says Allnutt. "The infusion of new health care dollars from the federal treasury is an opportunity to advance a range of necessary reforms that will support improved public health services for all British Columbians."

The polling questions:

Rural doctors are asking the provincial government for fee increases to compensate for their workload and to be able to attract and retain more doctors in these communities. Some people argue that increasing doctors' wages is only a band-aid solution and that other more long-range solutions should be found, such as community health centres, improving home support services, use of nurse practitioners and expanded roles of licensed practical nurses. Others argue that increasing fees of rural doctors will solve the workload problems. Which view comes closest to your own?

Increasing wages is only a band-aid solution: 66 per cent Increasing fees will solve this problem: 23 per cent Don't know/refused: 11 per cent

A contract exists between the B.C. Medical Association and the provincial government which specifies doctors fees. Do you support or oppose doctors breaking their existing contract to negotiate new fees?

Support: 35 per cent Oppose: 52 per cent Don't know/refused: 13 per cent

Do you support or oppose doctors taking job action if their demands are not met?

Support: 39 per cent Oppose: 55 per cent Don't know/refused: 6 per cent