How to deal with the doctor shortage

No, I’m sorry. Dr. K. is not taking any new patients at this time.”

I have heard my secretary say these words hundreds of times over the past four years. And every time, I feel regret. The callers are simply asking for something that we have taken for granted for decades – access to a family physician. Ten years ago, when I started working in the small town where I currently reside, there was no doctor shortage. But today, I’m one of only nine practising in the area instead of the 20 that used to work here.

This past decade has brought changes in the delivery of health care across Canada. These changes are the result of growing concerns by government about the cost of medical care and how medical practitioners now choose to work – as fee-for-service providers or salaried doctors. As a result, the number of family doctors available to the public has been reduced. Part of this problem is because of cutbacks in medical school enrolment and the restrictions on how a doctor can practise. Another significant fact is the emigration of doctors to the United States.

^Concerns regarding the ever-increasing health care budget are certainly valid. The various lels of government, however, never really anticipated the increased demand for medical services as our demographics changed and a large group of citizens moving into their 50s required additional medical resources. The other unexpected problem was that doctors, having been trained in larger urban centres, would prefer to stay in those larger centres, leaving smaller, rural communities desperately struggling to attract family doctors. To compound the problem even further, family medicine as a medical specialty has become less attractive to medical students; specialty training seems to offer a more secure job and a better lifestyle.

The result has left large parts of Canada urgently looking for family doctors and communities competing with each other for this finite human resource. Various incentives and inducements have been offered to doctors, and the competitive game continues to up the ante into thousands of dollars in recruitment packages. Despite these packages, the number of doctors remains limited.

So what do you do if you’ve just lost your family doctor or you’ve moved to a new community outside of the city and need to find a physician who is taking new patients? Here are a few things you can do to get the care you need.

  • If you are moving to a retirement community from a larger city, retain your current doctor. It may be easier to drive to  the city than to find a new physician, especially if you have a good relationship with that doctor.
  • If you have friends or relatives in the area, ask them to approach their doctor about taking you on as a patient.
  • If the community has a walk-in clinic, use it. However, try to establish a relationship with one of the doctors who works there. If possible, get that doctor’s schedule and try to build a relationship with him or her.
  • Get to know your local pharmacist. This professional may be aware of doctors in neighbouring towns who may be taking on new patients.
  • If you haven’t found a doctor and you’ve run out of your medication, go to the emergency department of the nearest hospital. The best time to go is just before eight o’clock in the morning when the staff changes shifts. You will wait less and the department is usually less busy at that time.
  • If you or a member of your family has a chronic disease such as arthritis or Alzheimer’s disease, contact community support organizations, such as the Alzheimer Society. They usually offer connections to local area experts and home-care nursing assistance.
  • Make use of the numerous health services offered within the community, such as free blood pressure and diabetes clinics at the health unit or pharmacy. Also, mammogram and flu vaccine clinics available through the public health unit or at the hospital usually don’t require a doctor’s referral.
  • If the community is trying to recruit a doctor, get involved. This may give you some first-hand contact that will help to eventually get the service you need.

Remember that you are the most important determinant of your health. Exercise, watch your weight and don’t smoke. Much of what family doctors do is preventative, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can enhance this aspect of your health.