The Search

This Ontario town is home to 8,000 residents — and 18 family doctors

From matchmaking to babysitting, the physician recruiter in Goderich, Ont., went to elaborate lengths to convince doctors to move to the small town.

From matchmaking to babysitting, Goderich's physician recruiter pulled out all the stops to woo new doctors

Paul Gill and Katayun Treasurywala, both doctors, had no intention of moving to Goderich, Ont., until they met the area's physician recruiter. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

The first time Dr. Katayun Treasurywala and her husband, Dr. Paul Gill, drove to Goderich, Ont., they talked about how they would tell the area's physician recruiter that they had no intention of moving to the community.

It was their ninth community visit and though the family physicians knew they wanted to live in a rural area, Goderich wasn't even on their short list.

They soon changed their minds.

They found themselves at the centre of a carefully orchestrated weekend aimed to woo doctors that could have been straight out of the movie The Grand Seduction.

Physician recruiter Gwen Devereaux says the key to recruiting a doctor is to learn what supports that person needs outside work, even helping a spouse find a job. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

"You're looking for people who are going to be just as excited about you launching your career as you are," said Treasurywala. 

"You're looking for a place you can call home."

Now the doctors are two in a new crop of physicians who have rejuvenated health-care coverage in Goderich and the surrounding region. In all, the town of 8,000 is home to 18 family doctors.

The town's ability to recruit family doctors is one of the success stories CBC Nova Scotia is examining as part of an in-depth look this month at Nova Scotia's doctor shortage. The tactics Goderich has used may hold valuable lessons for other jurisdictions in Canada struggling with the problem.

Desperate for doctors

Eighteen family physicians may seem like an impossible accomplishment. But those in the southwestern Ontario town say it is the result of a tremendous community effort.

Flashback to the early 2000s, when Goderich was down to just five doctors after a number of retirements. 

Deb Shewfelt, former mayor of Goderich, was also a real estate agent. He says the first thing people wanted to know when moving to town was if they could get a family doctor. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

"It was a tragedy," said Deb Shewfelt, the mayor at the time. "We had 5,000 orphan patients, I hate the term, but 5,000 people in the area without a doctor. Nobody seemed to be doing anything about it. It had become a great issue."

The town's deputy mayor was John Grace, who assumed that small towns had no business getting into health care. Up until that point, he said he was convinced it was the responsibility of the province.

But when fears grew that the lack of doctors would lead to the closure of Goderich's small hospital, the town council decided it had to do something.

"Your family doctor is your key to the health-care system. If you don't have a family doc, you're at the back of the line," Grace said.

A $6M plan that the town rallied behind

Goderich and its neighbouring communities had one asset: Gwen Devereaux, a former nurse, had been hired as a physician recruiter.

This was long before most regions considered it a job.

Everywhere she went — the grocery store, out for a meal — people would ask her for help.

Devereaux pushed the town council to take action.

The first hurdle Goderich had to address was the limited services in the small town.

John Grace says he can't imagine what would have happened to health care in Goderich if the town didn't actively try to recruit doctors. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

They set a seemingly impossible goal: raising $6 million to build a YMCA, complete with indoor pool and ice rink, and to renovate the library. 

"Young doctors are not going to come to rural Ontario — not unless they're going to be able to have the same amenities as they would in the city for their young families. That was a real turning point," said Grace, who led the campaign.

Local schools, unions and businesses all started small grassroots fundraisers to help out. There were also private donations from residents, many bigger than the town council expected.

"I think there's money in a community; you have to sell the fact that we have to do this together," said Shewfelt of the town's success.

When they hit their goal, the community leveraged money from the provincial and federal governments, and both projects were completed in just a few years.

Now that Goderich had services, the council took aim at a clinic. They raised a couple million more, and built a collaborative care centre.

The mayor's tour

It was then up to Devereaux to find the doctors.

She hosted annual weekend retreats for medical residents, taking them to the clinic and then out on the lake. Some even went on tours from the sky, as one of the physicians in town was also a pilot.

Devereaux planned gala evenings, carefully choosing the seating plans.

"So the psychiatrists are with the psychiatrists and the family docs are with the family docs as residents," she said. "This was our time to showcase our community."

In the early 2000s, Goderich was home to just five doctors after a number of retirements. Today, it has 18. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

The mayor often spent the better part of a day with candidates as part of a "mayor's tour," introducing them to people in the community, and in one case granting a foreign doctor's request to see the local Walmart and liquor store.

"One doctor had looked at 16 communities — he could have went anywhere," said Shewfelt. "He said, 'When I came, everything that was promised was delivered. There was nothing missed.' That tells me that the team, the community, everyone was pulling to make this happen."

Real estate agent, babysitter, matchmaker

Devereaux had her eye on more than just recruitment — it was also about retention.

She sought out jobs for the doctors' spouses, making sure they had individual tours connected to their employment. She got written guarantees that their children would have a space in daycare.

Devereaux has done everything from babysitting for physicians to setting them up on dates to convince them to move to the area and stay. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

One doctor who was single agreed to work in the area for two months. Devereaux took on the role of matchmaker, introducing him to the woman he would eventually marry.

Her role was so significant, the pair said they would have named the baby Gwen — if their first child hadn't been a boy.

The weekend that Treasurywala and Gill arrived with plans to turn Devereaux down, she insisted on babysitting their son. It was the first time they had a babysitter, and their first night out after his birth.

They were charmed by her efforts.

When the couple were graduating, 21 communities were interested in hiring them. They moved to Goderich five years ago and bought a house. Gill now coaches hockey in the community.

"I don't think I would have known where Goderich is on a map had it not been for Gwen pulling us in here," said Gill.

Doctors able to teach, research

With its wave of new doctors, Goderich now has a healthy staff level, which is allowing the community's family doctors to diversify.

They can work in the hospital, teach or do research at Gateway, a rural health research facility created to make the area even more appealing to physicians.

The Town of Goderich raised money to build the Maitland Valley Medical Centre as a way to attract doctors. Fifteen of the town's physicians now work in the building, which also offers blood testing and other medical services. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

"It feels wonderful," said Devereaux. "I sometimes have to be careful with other people who are recruiting when I say we have a population of 8,000 and we have 18 family docs. But trust me, I have been at the other side of that as well."

Grace said he feels pride when he drives by the YMCA and library, knowing how the town's effort changed everything.

He advises other communities to take control — and not wait for the province to fill the void.

"Nothing would have happened," he said. "It would have been a disaster. I can't imagine where we would be today."

About the Author

Carolyn Ray

Videojournalist

Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at Carolyn.Ray@cbc.ca

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