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My family doctor is moving away. What do I do next?

The question: I've had a wonderful family doctor for the last two years, but she's moving to another province next month. She's been a really attentive doctor, but has no answers for me in terms of getting a new family doctor. Her only suggestion is that I go to walk-in clinics on an as-needed basis, but I'd like to find another doctor. Am I just out of luck? Is there no process in place for replacement doctors in situations like these?

The answer: If you've established a trusting relationship with your family doctor and they close down their practice, it can leave a gap that can feel quite difficult to fill.

Family doctors serve as our gateway to the health-care system, navigating through its complexities to help us, as patients, make informed decisions regarding our health. Fifteen per cent of Canadians do not have a regular family doctor, so you are not alone in your search.

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I recently saw a new patient to my practice after her family doctor of 35 years had retired. He had been her doctor for her entire life – he had actually delivered her and took care of her through childhood and into adulthood. He was also her parents' doctor, and she felt anxious at the loss of his ongoing care. She was understandably a little nervous on our first encounter.

When doctors close their practice, they will often pass on their patients to a new physician or suggest other providers in the neighbourhood that may be accepting new ones. Of course this is dependent upon your doctor, the area you live in and the speed at which they have closed their practice. While walk-in clinics do fill a need for same-day service, it is important to find a dedicated doctor who knows you and your personal medical issues, and can best help you with your ongoing health needs.

Here are some tips to increase your chances of finding a family doctor:

  • Ask friends and family for a referral: If a loved one has a doctor they like and trust, have them check if there may be space in the practice. Often doctors will make exceptions to accommodate family members into their practice, even if they are full.
  • Contact your local teaching practice: Every Canadian university with a medical school has affiliated teaching practices that have resident doctors who start in July every year. These practices are often looking for patients, especially those with complex medical histories. Resident doctors offer up-to-date and thorough care because they are recent graduates who are always supervised by experienced staff physicians.
  • Check with your provincial health authority: Every province has a website that lists new and accepting doctors. Some provinces also have their own designated offices dedicated to linking patients without family doctors to accepting physicians. Check out the list below to see what services are available in your area.
  • Put yourself on a wait list: Even though this may take time, clinics do work through their wait list, and it may be worthwhile to put your name down to increase your chances.
  • Ask your other health-care providers for help: Allied health professionals like pharmacists, dentists, physiotherapists all work closely with doctors who may be accepting patients, so ask for their advice.

When you do find an accepting clinic, be prepared for your first visit. By taking in your complete medical history, current medications and information regarding the illnesses that may run in your family, you'll be helping with a smoother transition as you build a relationship with your new doctor.

Provincial websites

Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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