Navigating Care Without a Family Doctor

Are you struggling to find a family doctor? You are not alone. Around six million Canadians currently do not have one. And according to a report by the Royal Bank of Canada, the problem is going to get worse. It states that Canada will be short about 44,000 physicians by 2028, with family doctors accounting for 72 per cent of the deficit.

Are you one of the six million? It can be frustrating to seek care from emergency departments and walk-in clinics. Long wait times and doctors who do not know your medical history can leave you feeling lost. However, navigating the healthcare system without a family doctor becomes even harder when you have a chronic condition like arthritis.
Murky Waters

Trish Silvester-Lee’s family doctor recently retired. She lives with osteoarthritis and has struggled to obtain paperwork, specialist follow-up appointments and prescription renewals.

“It’s a Catch 22, especially if you need to get results read by a doctor,” Silvester-Lee said.

She had a routine mammography exam done and couldn’t find anywhere to accept the report. It was suggested that she get a walk-in clinic to read it, but they refused because she had never seen their doctors before.

“I’ve put my name on several waitlists alongside hundreds of other patients,” Silvester-Lee said. “I don’t expect to get a new family doctor anytime soon.”

She emphasized that not having a family doctor is about more than logistics when you’re living with chronic illness and pain. Every time Silvester-Lee needs to get a referral or bloodwork requisition, she has to go to a walk-in clinic where wait times are often long.

“Sitting at a walk-in clinic is very hard on my body because I live with arthritis,” she said. “The whole situation has taken a toll on my mental health. It’s very stressful.”


Steps to Solve Ongoing Crisis

In British Columbia, the state of healthcare in the province hit a boiling point in fall of 2022 when emergency room wait times skyrocketed. Several rural emergency rooms were even forced to close overnight due to a lack of staffing and resources – effectively leaving people without access to care for hours each day.

Then, in November of 2022, the BC government announced it would shift from a fee-for-service model whereby doctors are paid for each patient they see, to a roster system. This new system allows doctors to be paid for all the work they do – not just the time they spend meeting with patients. The hope is that this encourages more medical students to practice family medicine.

BC’s Ministry of Health and Doctors of BC also announced $118 million in “stabilization funding” to support family doctors. Those funds were distributed between October 2022 and end of January 2023.

In Canada, provincial and territorial governments are responsible for managing healthcare services for their residents, so access to family doctors is different across the country. But all you have to do is Google “family doctor shortage” and add your specific province/territory. The story is the same. People are struggling to find primary care providers and the provinces and territories are trying to find answers.


Solutions in the Short Term

If you live with arthritis and don’t have a family doctor, you might be thinking, “That’s great, but what can I do to improve my quality of care today?”

Samantha Rogers lives with rheumatoid arthritis. Although she recently found a family doctor, she didn’t have one for years. She has two tips for taking control of your care.

First, she turned to virtual clinic, which is an online walk-in clinic that can be used to book appointments with Canadian doctors. Rogers said it saved her hours of searching for in-person walk-in clinics that still had space.

“This tool was empowering because I was able to look up doctor profiles and select the doctor that I wanted to see,” she said. “It was also particularly useful when I wasn’t in an urban area and accessing a doctor was more challenging.”

Second, she let her rheumatologist be the filter. This won’t apply to everyone with arthritis. However, for people with autoimmune arthritis, Rogers recommends sharing all your symptoms with your rheumatologist – even if you think they aren’t arthritis-related.

“Dry eyes, skin changes, etc. can all be a part of your disease and it is better to let your rheumatologist be the filter than not share these symptoms at all.”

If you’re searching for a family doctor, some organizations offer resources to patients. The Vancouver Division of Family Practice is one example. They are currently unable to match patients with doctors due to the shortage. However, you might find some of the resources on the organization’s website helpful. If you live in Alberta, there is Alberta Find a Doctor, which allows you to locate physicians practicing in your area. Yukon has a Find a Doctor tool. Manitoba has the Family Doctor Finder. Ontario offers Health Care Connect. Most provincial and territorial ministry of health websites offer some guidance on how to find a doctor. Though, not all maintain lists of physicians who are currently accepting new patients.


Research Behind the Scenes

When people do not have access to a family doctor, serious medical conditions can go undetected for longer periods of time. With a disease like arthritis, it is extremely important to get diagnosed and treated early to prevent joint damage or complications caused by arthritis.

Arthritis Research Canada continually evaluates quality of care for people living with different types of arthritis. Our researchers are examining the long-term impact of virtual care on people with rheumatoid arthritis. They are testing new ways of delivering tailored care for people with inflammatory arthritis. They are assessing access to care in rural parts of the country, health inequities and so much more.

The Canadian healthcare system has guidelines that outline best practices for each medical condition. This does not mean that all people with the same disease receive the same treatment. Not having a family doctor plays a big role. As provinces and territories take steps to solve the primary care shortages, know that arthritis researchers also have your back.

Interested in quality of care research for people with arthritis?

*Arthritis Research Canada is not affiliated with and does not endorse the use of Virtual Clinic. There are other private companies that offer similar services. Virtual Clinic is only listed as an example as a tool used by Samantha Rogers.

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