Dr. Randy Friesen receives national award for providing health care to isolated communities

Dr. Randy Friesen was awarded the Society of Rural Physician's of Canada's 2020 Rural Service Award. The Victoria Hospital Foundation also honoured the longtime surgeon at its Doctor's Gala in 2018. (Society of Rural Physicians of Canada/Submitted)

The Society of Rural Physicians of Canada (SRPC) is recognizing a Prince Albert surgeon for providing much-needed care to some of Saskatchewan’s most isolated communities.

Dr. Randy Friesen was one of several physicians across the country—and the only one in Saskatchewan—who won the 2020 Rural Service Award. To qualify, the recipient must have been an SRPC member for at least five years and have served their communities for at least 10 years.

Friesen has been serving central and northern Saskatchewan for the last three decades. He practices in Prince Albert’s Victoria Hospital, as well as in Nipawin, but is currently doing mostly administrative work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m very grateful and pleased to have been influenced by people who have shown a level of commitment and dedication to, I would say, the unprivileged in this country,” he said.

Friesen explained that although Prince Albert isn’t technically rural, patients from across the north travel to the city for health care.

“People (are) coming from small communities and (I’m) saying ‘Wow.’ You know, this person had to spend the whole day finding their way to see me. Maybe it only took me 20 minutes to deal with the problem, but then it took another whole day to get back,” he said.

“There’s got to be a way to get services closer to home.”

And that’s exactly what Friesen is trying to figure out.

To have access to proper care in those communities, said Friesen, family physicians need to have a generalized skill set—and that can be difficult to achieve.

“There’s been a tremendous drive to urbanize, to centralize, to specialize and all of that, of course, serves large cities very nicely and it serves rural and small communities very poorly,” he said.

“In small communities, when you do centralization, you need more generalized skill sets to serve people, so we’ve actually lost, in a lot of our rural communities, we’ve lost significant skill sets. A lot of this is around maternal experiencing of childbirth and surgery.”

It’s a bit of a ripple effect, explained Friesen: If a community provides c-section surgeries, it must have some sort of surgery program. But, if it has a surgery program, it needs to provide enough services for physicians to maintain their skills.

Friesen said the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine is offering training to rural family physicians in Prince Albert.

Another local physician, Dr. Thomas Smith-Windsor, was key in making the program a reality. Smith-Winsor has also served as a past president of the SRPC.

Friesen said the program also provides training in surrounding communities such as Melfort, Nipawin, La Ronge, Meadow Lake and Humboldt.

“There were people from all over the country actually who, when they heard of the program, got very excited and said ‘This is what we need. We need somebody who brings attention to these smaller communities who have lost skills, have lost, to be honest, sometimes hospitals,” said Friesen.

“They’ve lost a lot of people—people that want to live in the community, but they don’t have a half decent hospital.”

According to a SRPC president’s message released in 2020 in the Canadian Journal of Rural Medicine, 18 per cent of Canadians live in a rural community, but only eight per cent of physicians practice in rural communities.

That number is even lower for specialists, three per cent of which work in rural communities.