Anne Cameron, Vancouver
Anne Cameron describes herself as a healthy senior, apart from her “head-to-toe” arthritis. But she is frustrated that for the first time in her life she does not have a family doctor.
“I miss getting medical opinions on things,” she said. “It’s a sense of being cast out there.”
Ms. Cameron has been looking for a doctor since May, when she received an e-mail saying her family doctor was stopping practice for personal reasons. The other doctors at the family medicine clinic all had a full slate of patients.
The biggest challenge, she said, is adjusting from having a “wonderful” doctor who got to know her over seven years to dealing with health care workers who have no ongoing relationship with her.
The first time she walked the three blocks to a walk-in clinic from her home near the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, she left without seeing a doctor after waiting in line more than three hours. She blamed herself for not better describing her symptoms to staff who don’t know her back story.
Ms. Cameron went back to the walk-in clinic the next day and a nurse triaging patients moved her up the priority list after she explained that her arthritis had flared up in her sacroiliac joint, where the spine connects to the back of the pelvis – something potentially serious. A doctor ordered X-rays. She was fine in the end, but she worries about not being able to have regular checkups with her own doctor.
“I could have a heart problem any time. That’s just looking at my family history.”
Anish Panday, 22, Ajax, Ont.
Until two months ago, Anish Panday had no idea how hard it would be to find a family doctor in the Greater Toronto Area.
The 22-year-old urban planner, along with his parents and older sister, had been seeing the same physician in their hometown of Ajax, east of Toronto, for as long as Mr. Panday could remember. That all changed when the family received an e-mail announcing their physician was closing his practice at the end of this year. Despite his best efforts, Mr. Panday’s doctor, who has cancer and has been on leave, simply could not find a young physician willing to take on his large practice.
The news sent Mr. Panday and his family on what has so far been a wild goose chase for primary care. None of the dozen or so offices they’ve called in their region are taking new patients. A provincial website that purports to connect people with available doctors led to nothing but waiting lists that were hundreds or thousands of patients long. “Our names are on a couple of lists,” Mr. Panday said. “But I mean, the odds of it panning out are slim to none.”
Now the family is leaning on friends and acquaintances for a referral, hoping someone – anyone – they know has the inside track on a doctor willing to squeeze in just a few more patients.
Mr. Panday, his sister and his parents, who are in their 60s, are fortunate to be healthy. But Mr. Panday knows that could change. He recently sprained his ankle while playing soccer. He would have liked a doctor to look at it, but he didn’t want to spend a day sitting at an overcrowded walk-in clinic or emergency department.
“In that instance,” Mr. Panday said, “Rub A535 was the doctor.”
Katie O’Byrne, 39, Peace River, Alta.
If it wasn’t for connections in the medical community, Katie O’Byrne says she would be an “orphan patient” like hundreds of others in her small town who don’t have access to a family doctor.
She works at the only hospital in Peace River as a registered nurse; there is no urgent care or walk-in clinics in the Northern Alberta community, where about 7,000 people live. Since 2018, when her family doctor retired, the 39-year-old has been accessing care sporadically.
Just recently, she started seeing a nurse practitioner she knows to manage her arthritis and endometriosis, in addition to monitoring a noncancerous mass on her ovaries. She is thankful for the care but is still waiting a month, sometimes longer, as the clinician is seeing Ms. O’Byrne outside of her job.
Nurse practitioners, much like doctors, are trained to diagnose health conditions, order tests, interpret results, prescribe medications, make referrals and manage overall care. They can work independently in Alberta but, unlike physicians, cannot bill the government.
Ms. O’Byrne’s children still do not have a doctor.
“Without having the inside track and being in health care working with these doctors and practitioners, I would be in the same boat of having no family doctor,” she said.
And it’s not just family physicians that are few and far between; access to specialists is also severely limited.
Ms. O’Byrne’s gynecologist, who was closely observing the benign tumour, also moved to Calgary from Peace River more than a year ago. Ms. O’Byrne has been on a wait-list ever since and, while the nurse practitioner is doing her best, it’s not her expertise. There are fears the tumour could become more serious.
“Patients, in general, are just left to be their own navigators for all these chronic conditions. And unless you’re vocal about your concerns and fighting for follow-ups or extra testing, it doesn’t happen because the doctors can’t see you or it’s not their specialty,” she said. “We’re really struggling.”
Iman Gatti, 41, Sherwood Park, Alta.
If it wasn’t for returning to a walk-in clinic for an unrelated medical concern, Iman Gatti wouldn’t have been informed about a different diagnosis, and resulting prescription, that a doctor forgot to mention weeks earlier. “She was like ‘oops,’” recalls Ms. Gatti.
Thankfully it was nothing serious, but the 41-year-old mother, who lives east of Edmonton in Sherwood Park, said she’s concerned her quality of care is being compromised now that she is without a family doctor. At that same appointment she was following up on a routine pap exam that showed abnormal results. She was worried it might signal cancer; the doctor was unable to offer any explanation.
Since her long-time physician moved elsewhere in August, she has called at least a dozen clinics but, so far, none are taking new patients, and she hasn’t been offered to be placed on any type of waitlist.
“Aside from sitting down and calling every single doctor and asking and begging, I don’t know what we’re supposed to do.” She joked: “Can I bring a basket of muffins? Anyone taking bribes?”
She said her family is in good health but there is a feeling of uneasiness that comes with relying on drop-in supports. While she is thankful to have that option, Ms. Gatti said the physicians can’t dedicate much time to walking through a patient’s medical concerns or history. And long waiting times at drop-in clinics are worrisome, especially with a four-year-old daughter.
“It felt like someone who was invested in your health – the most important thing in your life – is no longer there and now no one else really cares,” she said. “I was at Fendi and now I’m at the dollar store.”
Shawntay Rose Dann, 26, Dartmouth, N.S.
When Shawntay Rose Dann’s family doctor retired just prior to the pandemic, she was told his replacement would arrive within a few months. When the new doctor finally began working, a year and a half later, he quit after six months.
The 26-year-old community and mental-health activist in Dartmouth, N.S., is now among the more than 100,000 people in her province who do not have a family physician. There’s been a 45-per-cent increase in the registrants on a provincial waitlist since July, 2021.
It’s left Ms. Dann navigating long lineups at walk-in clinics just to get prescriptions, and dealing with new physicians who don’t know her health history. Because she has allergies to certain medications, it’s frustrating to have to start over every time.
“I have to go a walk-in clinic, if one is available. And then it’s so much waiting and hoping you can see someone,” she said. “The problem is because a lot of them don’t know me, they don’t know how to treat me properly. It becomes a fight for your own health.”
Without a family doctor, she’s also been unable to complete paperwork to apply for a disability pension from the province, she said.
Ms. Dann says the last time she inquired, she was told she’s looking at a two-year wait before she can expect to have a new family doctor assigned to her. She’s also on a waitlist for a Black physician, part of a community initiative to get more people treated by doctors who share their background, but doesn’t know when that might happen, either.
- Greg Mercer