After more than a decade of serving the Columbia Valley in rural medicine, a community doctor has been recognized nationally for his lifelong efforts.

The Society of Rural Physicians of Canada (SRPC) recently presented Dr. Stephen Arif with the Fellowship of Rural and Remote Medicine (FRRMS) during a virtual ceremony.

“I really enjoy the wide scope of practice, working in the hospital’s emergency department and in the clinics to take care of people and their families,” said Arif. “It’s a way of knowing and understanding the lives my patients live.”

He added riding a bike to work instead of commuting by car for hours was a serious perk of the job description in the Columbia Valley.

While joining the SRPC is not a requirement, Arif initially joined to advocate for rural medicine in the Columbia Valley and was honoured to receive an award from his peers through the SRPC this year.

Arif began his career working in rural medicine in 1984 at the Sioux Lookout with a focus on First Nations health care, then over time he served several nations in rural Atikokan, Ontario for 21 years.

Later, Arif came to Invermere for an opportunity to work at Chisel Peak Medical Clinic and he stayed there full-time for roughly 12 years. In January 2019, he began working part-time at Chisel Peak Medical Clinic, the Invermere Medical Clinic as well as serving at the Invermere and District Hospital when doctors took vacation time-off to rest or sick days.

But he’s always willing to pitch in.

“When the pandemic struck, I stepped up to the plate and said I would work full-time,” he explained, “but as it worked out, we were lucky and the novel coronavirus didn’t hit the valley very hard, and it wasn’t the workload that we prepared for.

Arif explained there was a lot of planning and preparation work for medical staff in the East Kootenay community to ensure health care workers in the valley could access Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), medical supplies and safely isolate infected individuals in the event a novel coronavirus outbreak struck the rural community.

However, he worries the residual effects of the COVID-19 crisis have not yet ended.

“The larger concern is that we may see just as much illness caused by conditions not directly related to COVID, but got worse because of COVID,” he explained. “In the case of overdoses, it’s believed that people are using alone, more. That’s one of the reasons, there’s more deaths now.”

He added the supply chain for street drugs may have been impacted due to the travel restrictions occurring during the pandemic, which has resulted in highly toxic and contaminated narcotics for drug users.

In addition, there have been issues for many others with mental health, physical injuries due to domestic violence, delayed elective surgeries and in some cases postponed diagnoses for patients who could not be tested during the height of the pandemic.

But the biggest challenge, he said, about working in rural communities is accessing care through sub-specializations for patients who may not be up for travelling long distances to see specialists in urban centres.

“The hardest part of being a rural physician in the valley, I would say, is getting people the advanced care they need where they need to have. Getting people in to see the right specialist,” said Arif, noting that approximately once a week a patient requires a specialist outside of the community which typically results in travel to urban centres such as Kelowna, Vancouver or Victoria to access cardiologists, neurosurgeons and other specialists.

“I believe that all Canadians should be able to see the closest appropriate specialist to where they live regardless of provincial boundaries. The best care is the care that’s closest to home.”