There are few things worse than feeling sick and having to wait hours to be seen by a doctor at a walk-in clinic. Or to arrive at a clinic only to read a note on the door, saying they’ve closed because the doctors have reached the maximum number of patients they can see in a day.
But that’s the reality of health care in B.C.
And in Langley, one of the fastest growing municipalities in the province, the demand for doctors far outstrips the supply, said Ellen Peterson, executive director for the Langley Division of Family Practice.
But non-profit organizations like the Langley Division are working to recruit doctors, connect patients with GPs and engage physicians and nurse practitioners to find out best practices and creative solutions for treating patients.
There are no doctors taking new patients in Langley, said Peterson.
The lack of family doctors throughout B.C. is putting a major strain on walk-in clinics and ERs. The crisis has prompted the Walk-In Clinics of B.C. Association to launch a petition April 7 about the shortage.
In total, 45 clinics have closed over the past five years for lack of doctors. The petition is calling on the government to retain more family doctors.
The Langley Division with Ministry of Health funding, have connected 8,340 patients with a family doctor over the past three years.
“In Langley we worked really hard to get the sickest, the most vulnerable — like the elderly and the homeless — to the front of the line for GPs,” said Peterson.
“The reality is, going to a hospital can actually make you sicker, so we want them seeing doctors and then managing their health at home.”
When a baby is born at Langley Memorial, mom and infant are automatically connected to a GP while still in hospital.
“But if you are new to Langley, it is difficult to get a family doctor,” Peterson said.
Langley has 13 walk-in clinics, 25 family practices and 100 GPs overall to serve Langley’s more than 125,000 residents.
BEST WAY TO HANDLE WALK-IN CLINICS
Here is what Peterson recommends for those who rely on walk-in clinics for their healthcare.
Look online to medimap.ca to find out which clinics are open and what their wait time is before driving to one.
Once at a clinic, put your name down and leave, she recommends.
“Our clinics are getting really good at giving patients an estimated wait time, so they can put their name down and return around the estimated time. That way you don’t have to sit around waiting with other sick people.”
Clinics, unlike family practices, are open evenings and weekends, which can be helpful for getting help with children who may have an illness over the weekend, for example. However, Peterson recommends that if you can wait for your GP, they usually will hold a spot open each day for more urgent, unexpected appointments.
Clinics were created to take the pressure off emergency rooms, so use them before going to the ER. Utilize the 811 health line for advice about the best healthcare option to suit a particular need, Peterson suggests.
WHY CLINICS CLOSE EARLY
The reason walk-in clinics have to close once they have reached 55 patients in a day is because the provincial government will not pay doctors to see patients past that cap.
“They would have to work for free to see more patients,” she said.
But the reason doctors aren’t pushing to see the cap lifted is that 55 patients is about all they can handle if they want to give proper care, she said.
“When they see a patient, there can be lab work, specialist referrals, follow-ups. There are frail seniors who have multiple diseases and multiple medications that are very complicated cases. Doctors can really only handle around 45 to 50 for optimal care.”
LANGLEY HAS 13 WALK-IN CLINICS
There are 13 walk-in clinics in Langley, the latest to open is Health Way in Langley City and Happy Face Clinic in Willoughby — a neighborhood in desperate need of services.
“It takes up to two years to get a new clinic up and running. We have 12 open postings for doctors to fill positions, so if you know of any doctors, let us know,” said Peterson.
“We have been able to recruit 16 doctors, but a lot of them are working part-time at clinics,” she said. Doctors are graduating with a different mindset — putting a priority of work-life balance, whereas doctors from earlier generations often chose to give up time with family to help patients.
DOCTORS ARE RETIRING
“(Many of) our family doctors are baby boomers, and we are projecting that 20 per cent will retire soon,” said Peterson.
“If you know a doctor who would like to work here, we’d be happy to hear from them,” Peterson said. Langley has a residency program and trains 12 to 14 medical students a year. But once a doctor has graduated, they can go anywhere they want.
“Langley attracts some doctors looking to raise a family in a smaller community, but it’s not just about recruitment, it’s about retention, too.”
Being a family doctor requires a huge commitment and a lot of time away from loved ones, often well over 50 hours a week.
“They work so hard for the care of their patients. It always humbles me. Sometimes it is nice to say thanks to your GP,” she suggests.
More and more family practices are bringing on nurse practitioners to share the load of patient care.
“The scope of NP’s expertise is high, and they are especially good with seniors’ care, with helping manage diabetes, etc. They also have a little more time for patients and can do home visits.
“Patients need to understand that they aren’t getting lesser care with an NP. However, if there is something that is beyond their scope, they will refer the patient back to the GP.”
SOME HEALTHY ADVICE
It’s being called the silver tsunami, the wave of baby boomers who are beginning to age and putting more strain on an already stressed system. Peterson advises people do their best to stay healthy to avoid reliance on health care.
“The best prescription is diet and exercise. People want a magic fix from their doctors. There isn’t one. Manage your health by being healthy.”