Family physicians are hard to find

Province-wide doctor shortage impacts Fraser Valley communities.

  • Sep. 12, 2015 10:00 a.m.

Alex Butler

Abbotsford News

After multiple attempts to see a doctor to deal with the blisters forming under the cast on her six-year-old daughter’s arm, Julie Sidorak ended up using a clean sock and baby powder to try to fix the problem herself.

She would have preferred to consult a professional, but staff at the emergency room where the cast was applied said she would have to go to her family doctor.

That’s a major problem though, because almost a year after moving to Abbotsford from Calgary and looking for a family doctor, Sidorak still can’t find one.

ER staff suggested she go to a walk-in clinic, noting one which is equipped to deal with casts.

Sidorak called. Despite an opening time of 9 a.m., she was told there was no doctor until after 1 p.m. That afternoon, she headed to the clinic with her family.

When they arrived, there was a note posted on the door. “Closed due to a lack of doctors.”

 

Sidorak is far from unique in her search for a physician. About one in five people in the Abbotsford/Mission area do not have a family doctor. Research indicates that in Mission alone, more than 8,000 people do not have a regular physician.

Five years ago, the former health minister promised that everyone in B.C. needing a family doctor would have one by 2015.

In 2013, the government, in partnership with Doctors of BC, expanded a pilot program called A GP For Me province-wide, in order to try and make that a reality.

A GP For Me is designed to increase the capacity of the primary health care system, through efforts established by the a local division of family practice, specifically geared to that community. One of the main stated goals is to connect every patients who wants a family doctor, with one.

In April of this year, Health Minister Terry Lake said in the legislature that while 20 per cent of Albertans and 25 per cent of Quebecers don’t have a family doctor, that number is only 16 per cent in B.C, adding that the A GP for Me program has made significant strides.

The Abbotsford Division of Family Practice, a non-profit society with the authority to speak for Abbotsford family physicians, is implementing the program locally.

They’ve found that about 26,000 people in the city are not attached to a family physician, while 5,000 to 6,000 people are actively looking.

When health issues arise, those without a family doctor may go to walk-in clinics or even the emergency room – adding to the existing strain on those resources.

With a population of nearly 140,000, Abbotsford has 126 general practitioners, but only 79 are family practice doctors who see patients in a clinical setting – the rest are hospital-based or work in maternity. When patient openings are available, it become a matter of connecting those who are looking with an available doctor.

The Mission Division of Family Practice office, located on Hurd Street, has also launched the A GP for Me program. It is creating a list of people who currently do not have a family doctor. As openings occur, the person is contacted and directed to a local physician. (For more, see story on page 12).

 

Bohdan Zajcew, strategic lead for the implementation of A GP for Me program in Abbotsford, said research has shown there are huge benefits to having a long-term family doctor, particularly for the elderly, or people with chronic health issues. Family doctors can help provide better outcomes for patients, with lower costs to the health care system.

However, he said the number of doctors accepting new patients “shifts on a week-by-week basis.”

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. has an online search engine to find doctors who are taking new patients.

Sidorak said at one point she was given an information sheet which pointed her to the website.

A search turned up the names of four physicians, but as Sidorak called, she was repeatedly told those doctors weren’t accepting patients.

Zajcew said the site is “well-intentioned, but unfortunately, it is not kept current.”

There is no organization charged with the role of connecting patients and doctors, which is why the Abbotsford Division of Family Practice hopes to create such a system. The organization will keep lists current by being in touch with doctor’s offices weekly, said Zajcew.

However, connections are just one piece of the puzzle. More doctors are needed in order to meet the demand, both locally and provincially.

 

Dr. Bill Cavers, immediate past-president of Doctors of BC, said the provincial doctor shortage dates back to the ’90s, when the government reduced the number of medical school graduates by 10 per cent, based on a UBC report that said there were too many doctors per capita. However, Cavers said what that report overlooked was the aging demographic of baby boomers.

Now, age-related issues have hit patients who increasingly need treatment for chronic illnesses, and doctors who are slowing down as they near retirement.

More young doctors now have spouses who are also have careers, and doctors are not working the same number of hours, and therefore are not putting in the same number of work years in return for their training.

 

As communities struggle for physicians in a global shortage, the reality of every Abbotsford and Mission resident having their own family doctor may not be resolved in the immediate future.

The entire province needs 450 new doctors a year to replace the current outflow. UBC med school graduates 288 annually.

“It’s scary,” says Cavers.

But pilot projects of the A GP For Me program have been successful, he said. In White Rock/South Surrey, everyone who wants a family doctor has one, following the implementation of the program.

As patients continue to search, Cavers has simple advice:

“Do not give up hope, just wait for a little bit … and keep on trying.”

 

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