Sundre doctor among nation’s best

Despite semi-retirement status, Sundre’s Dr. Hal Irvine had a stethoscope around his neck when he was named one of Canada’s top family doctors for 2013 by the College of Family Physicians of Canada.

Dr. Hal Irvine

Dr. Hal Irvine

Despite semi-retirement status, Sundre’s Dr. Hal Irvine had a stethoscope around his neck when he was named one of Canada’s top family doctors for 2013 by the College of Family Physicians of Canada.

He was on clinic duty on Monday at Greenwood Family Physicians Clinic when the winners were announced.

Irvine, 61, continues to do locum work for doctors who need time off. He joked that he was still figuring out what “semi-retirement” means.

“I stepped back from full-time practice at the end of June. Our plan is to spend six months of the year in Nelson, B.C., and six months of the year in Sundre,” said Irvine about he and his wife, Dianne Fisher, on Tuesday.

On Monday, 10 doctors across Canada were chosen for their outstanding patient care, significant contributions to the health and well-being of their communities, and their commitment to family medicine, teaching and research.

Award recipients are nominated by their colleagues, community leaders and the College of Family Physicians’ 10 provincial chapters.

Irvine was nominated Dr. Mark Wylie, a fellow Sundre doctor.

Awards will be presented on Nov. 5 as part of Family Doctor Week in Canada at the college’s annual Family Medicine Forum being held in Vancouver this year.

Irvine said he feels both honoured and surprised to be receiving the award for just doing his job.

“I’ve always tried to do the best work I can and tried to give my patients in the community the type of service I would like to receive,” said Irvine, who will be attending the awards ceremony next week.

Irvine, an anesthesiologist, has been a family doctor in Sundre for 31 years.

He did his residency training in Ontario after studying medicine at the University of Calgary. Irvine and his wife came back to Alberta when they started having children to be close to family.

Irvine has been involved in numerous organizations such as the Alberta Medical Association and the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada. In 1988, he was president of the Alberta College of Family Physicians.

From 1995 to 2000, he served as clinical assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s department of family medicine. He was promoted to associate professor in 2000.

He was recognized as Clinician of the Year in 2002 by the David Thompson Health Region medical staff. In 2009, the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada awarded Irvine with a Fellowship of Rural and Remote Medicine.

Irvine, who grew up in Red Deer, chose to practice in Sundre to be close to family and larger urban communities while living near the mountains and working with impressive local medical staff.

When he started there was only one doctor at Sundre’s hospital and another with an office practice in town. Now there are nine local doctors.

The hospital was rated for 36 beds when he arrived.

“It was the only place in town open 24 hours a day and we were able to use the hospital as a social service. If someone was down and out and didn’t have any place to sleep for the night, we could put them up. If a single mother needed to be in a hospital and there was no one to look after her kids, she could bring her kids with them and we could make it happen.

“That flexibility is totally gone now. We’re down to 13 beds. Often we’re full here and need to be phoning around to communities like Olds, Innisfail, Didsbury, Rocky Mountain House trying to find beds for patients.”

Irvine is one of six Sundre doctors to retire or leave town in the last few years, but the town has been successful in recruiting one doctor trained in Alberta, one from South Africa and several from the United Kingdom.

“It’s almost unheard of in Alberta to recruit that many doctors to a rural community. I think it speaks well to what a great community we have here and the efforts of community members to make new doctors feel welcome.”

He said on one hand it’s nice to have good doctors coming from places like the U.K. and South Africa, but it would be nice to see Alberta become more self-sufficient.

“My take on that is the universities and the residency programs need to be socially responsible in terms of following and anticipating what the needs of the population are over the years and trying to encourage specialists to be training in the specialty programs where the needs are going to be.

“You certainly don’t want them to be training in a specialty they’re not going to be happy in. If they’re going to be unhappy doctors, they’re not going to be particularly good doctors, I don’t think. But at the same time, there can be ways to encourage people to go into, for example, rural practice.”

Irvine said his family practice in Sundre has been very rewarding.

“Young women I delivered 25, 30 years ago are now having children and I’m able to look after them and deliver their babies. That’s been a special treat for me.”

Irvine said he has gotten to know many patients quite well.

“They’re as much friends as patients.”

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