October 12, 2011

How to find a family doctor

By Anna Sharratt

Looking for quality healthcare for you and your family but can’t find a family physician? Here’s a prescription you can follow.

Finding a family doctor can be tough. Take Ian McNulty, a Toronto-based caterer, who’d been searching for years when a colleague referred him. “Without that recommendation, I would have had to keep going to walk-in clinics,” says McNulty. “Now I can actually make an appointment when I want to see a doctor.”

“Although we’ve made some progress over the last decade, too many Canadians still have difficulty finding a family doctor,” says Dr. Robert Boulay, president of the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC), who practises family medicine in Miramichi, NB. The CFPC estimates that up to five million Canadians don’t have a family physician.

That’s because approximately 15 years ago, there were federal and provincial funding cuts to medical schools, restrictions placed on the number of medical school applicants, and minimal resources (due to reduced funding) to encourage medical students to pursue a career in family medicine. This led to the current shortage of family doctors, particularly in smaller communities. “We’re still playing catch-up,” admits Boulay.

So what should you do if you’re on the hunt for a family doctor but it seems like no one’s accepting patients? Do a little bit of research, start networking and add some creativity to the mix.

Do your homework

First, check the website of your provincial medical association. Many, such as the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons, list doctors who are accepting new patients, along with their contact info and locations.

“This is the most accurate information for members of the public because it reads directly from the College's register – and therefore updates in real time,” says Susan Prins, director, communications at College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC.

If you find you’re ending up in hospital emergency rooms (ERs) for your medical issues, talk to the staff. Many ER departments will take your name and keep you on file if a doctor affiliated with that hospital begins taking new patients.

Or, if a walk-in has become your second home, approach the doctor who treats you. Often walk-in physicians have their own practices within the clinic and will accept new patients. “Sometimes that can develop into a long-term relationship,” says Boulay. Or they’ll know of other physicians who are and will be able to refer you.

Spread the word

Letting your family, friends and colleagues – heck even that friendly hockey mom – know you’re looking for a family doctor can work wonders. Often they can pass your name along to their family doctor and make a personal connection.

“We do have a hard time saying no when people we know approach us,” says Boulay. “It’s hard to turn them away.”

Boulay says a personal appeal from a patient can also work, provided it’s done in a non-confrontational way. He says many people will ask him directly for an appointment. He says he usually says yes.

And if getting past a physician’s secretary is proving a challenge, writing a pleasant note or email can also be helpful in explaining your case and putting your best foot forward. “It can’t hurt,” says Boulay.

Other options

Sure, family physicians can be tricky to find. But other equally effective healthcare options exist. Nurse practitioners, who have many of the same rights as doctors – including the ability to diagnose simple medical conditions, order tests and prescribe most medications – can be a great alternative to family physicians.

Or there’s always the option of getting family physicians while they’re young. “Family medicine residents usually finish in July and August,” says Boulay, so it might be a good idea to call up your local medical clinic during that time of year to learn if they are joining it.

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