The Special Areas of Alberta is big country. Spread across 20,000 square kilometres of southeastern Alberta rangeland, Special Areas is home to big skies, sweeping plains and close-knit farming and ranching communities.
Being a physician in this big country is a big job. The hospital and medical clinic in Oyen, a town of just under a thousand souls three hours east of the city of Calgary, serve half-a-dozen rural and smaller urban municipalities.
Over the years physicians have come and gone, and whenever Oyen clinic found itself in need of a doctor, the remaining MDs would work within their professional networks to find a replacement. However, when two of the community’s three physicians left suddenly in 2011, there was no replacement waiting in the wings. Oyen Medical Clinic found itself with one doctor left to serve 6000 area residents, a daunting prospect for the remaining physician and community, which left the Big Country Dental Medical Board with a big problem.
Having no direction, no experience, and no idea where to begin, the outlook for finding new physicians for the community was bleak. As they would discover, the answer to their recruitment woes was literally at their fingertips.
Realizing they were having problems, Big Country hired community economic development consultant, Christie Dick, to develop a strategic plan. The challenge, according to Dick, was to find a way to connect prospective physicians from around the globe with this unassuming corner of rural Alberta.
“How do you get a doctor if you don’t tell anyone you want a doctor? Your community is exactly the same as everyone else’s - how do you make this community an interesting place for one physician out of a million physicians?”
Looking to emulate the success of the Return to Rural initiative, that connects young professionals and families with professional and lifestyle opportunities in the Special Areas, a marketing strategy was developed to grow an online presence for the community.
In 2011, the Physician Careers in Oyen website (http://www.physiciancareersinoyen.com/) was developed, with funding from the SAMDA (Special Areas, MD of Acadia No.34, Village of Cereal, Village of Empress and the Town of Oyen) Economic Partnership. A social media management strategy was also created, with an RPAP Community Physician Attraction & Retention Grant helping to cover a one-year contract for social media management of the “Physician Careers in Oyen” Facebook and Twitter outlets.
In the months that followed, a visiting locum physician became permanent, and Dr. Akinseinde Osakuade, known locally as “Dr. Akin”, was attracted to the community from the United Kingdom, specifically as a result of Big Country’s online campaign.
Although his decision to work in a rural community had already been made, Dr. Osakuade agrees that the advertising and information he received online swayed his decision to come to Oyen.
“I think the website for recruiting doctors was excellent, because I virtually could get all the information I want or needed to know about Oyen on the website,” said Dr. Akin. “I could watch videos about the physicians working here, what the people have to say, what the doctors have to say, what the pharmacists have to say. Pretty much all I needed to know was available”
Spurred on by Oyen’s success, several other rural Alberta communities have launched online recruitment efforts of their own, with projects from Coronation, Milk River, Vulcan, and South Peace receiving assistance from the RPAP Community Grant program since 2014.
Although launching a website and social media campaign was critical to Oyen’s recent success, Dick cautions communities that just building a Facebook page to recruit a physician isn’t going to work.
“It's not just about social media and technology, it's about building relationships, and we try really hard to do that, to be supportive,” Dick added. “You know we've worked alongside Dr. Akin, for example, this entire way, so if he needs something we're there, we're texting, we're calling, we're emailing, so we're there. You have to close the loop on all these things, and you have to continue building relationships with the people that you're working with or recruiting.”
“Without that it doesn’t matter what you do in social media or online, it’s not going to resonate with people, and they're not going to become a part of your community or buy your community.”