Finding a family doctor may not be a top priority for everyone—but for those in need, the search can be daunting.
In Vancouver, it is estimated that over 100,000 people don’t have a family doctor and about 24,000 are actively looking for one, according to the Vancouver Division of Family Practice.
Until recently, Roanna Zee was one of those people on the hunt.
“New people do have difficulty finding a doctor,” she said.
When Zee moved to the city just over six years ago, she immediately started looking for a doctor. But finding one proved to be a greater challenge than she expected.
She lowered her expectations for finding a doctor close to her East Vancouver home and broadened her search. Despite her efforts, she didn’t find a doctor until a few months ago—and it was thanks to sheer luck. “The doctor I found, the name surfaced on Twitter of all places,” Zee said. “Somebody mentioned so-and-so is taking new patients and I called immediately to make an appointment.”
This type of long-term search for a family doctor is being addressed by the General Practice Services Committee (GPSC), a group of B.C. physicians and Ministry of Health officials that aims to improve health care for doctors and patients.
The committee launched a provincewide program, A GP for Me, earlier this year to help residents connect with a family doctor or consistent general practitioner. The Vancouver division of the program is currently conducting surveys to understand what barriers residents experience while finding a doctor.
The concern isn’t simply that thousands of people are looking for a doctor, but the long-term problems not having a consistent doctor creates. “There is good evidence to show that if you’re attached to a family doctor you have better health,” said Dr. Shelley Ross, chair of the GPSC. “There is a lot of repeating of the same thing if no one knows what’s been done before.”
Map: Doctors accepting new patients in Vancouver, according to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C.
The lack of consistent medical care proved to be detrimental to Zee’s health.
During her six-year hunt for a doctor, Zee experienced symptoms similar to celiac disease, a condition that causes intolerance to gluten.
Tests and check-ups performed at varying clinics—depending on where she could book appointments—were not providing her with a definite diagnosis.“Walk-ins are great but that’s not any way of addressing a long-term health issue,” she said.
Without a clear diagnosis from a doctor, Zee said she took on what she calls a “self-care” approach of researching symptoms online and restricting her diet. Now that she has finally found a family doctor, she hopes she’ll be provided with more effective, non-pharmaceutical approaches to treating symptoms.
While Zee’s health challenges may not be incredibly common, the need for consistent medical care applies to anyone regardless of their health. Ross said everyone should have a “medical home” that they always visit and keeps track of their medical records.
Having a medical home means doctors can monitor and catch health problems before they become serious. It also fosters a relationship in which patients are comfortable speaking about their concerns, Ross said. For those uninterested in finding a family doctor, a walk-in clinic can serve as a medical home as long as it’s consistently visited.
“It’s the continuity of care that we’re concerned about,” she said.
Currently, anyone looking for a family doctor can either search an online list of those accepting patients through the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. or ask for referrals through friends and family. Neither method is guaranteed to be successful because the online list isn’t always up to date and many doctors are over capacity.
A GP for Me Vancouver is still in the early stages of developing a plan to improve access to doctors in the city over the next three years. But in the White Rock-South Surrey area, where a pilot version of the program was launched in 2010, the results have been promising.
“It’s been an evolution over several years,” said Dr. Brenda Hefford, a general practitioner who helped launch A GP for Me in that area.
Through the program, seven new doctors were recruited to the community, a clinic was opened for those needing urgent care and who don’t have a regular doctor, and a hotline was set up to connect residents with doctors who are accepting new patients.
While a shortage of doctors may be part of the problem, recruiting is not always the best or most viable solution for every community. Both Hefford and Ross said other changes within existing clinics such as bringing in nurses to support doctors, integrating technological solutions, and allowing for phone consultations can improve access for patients.
The goal is to provide patients with preventative and timely care, Ross said.