I'm searching for a family doctor in Canada and getting Beyoncé tickets is easier
This is a first-person experiential piece written by a Daily Hive staff member.
Getting access to a family doctor shouldn’t be as hard as getting tickets to a Beyoncé concert.
And yet, here I am, with tickets to see Queen B’s highly sought-after show (all thanks to a presale code), but no medical practice with space to take me on as a new patient.
I moved from Vancouver to Toronto in 2013 to study at Toronto Metropolitan University, and I reaped the benefits of student life, which included access to the on-campus medical centre.
There, I was able to get yearly physicals, update my shots, and get the necessary health screenings for women.
My access to the clinic lasted until 2018, a year after I graduated, and I didn’t anticipate how much of a mission it would be to secure a new family doctor.
Since then, I’ve scoured the city for available family physicians, doing everything from cold calling clinics to asking for recommendations from friends.
I’ve been met with many “we’re not accepting new patients, but we’ll put you on the waitlist,” to straight up just “No, no, no, we’re not doing that.”
Damn, sorry I asked.
I even registered for Ontario’s Health Care Connect program, which assigns you to a “care connector” who works with family physicians and nurse practitioners accepting new patients.
Ontario is partnering with @OntarioHealthOH to launch Health Connect Ontario, a new tool that connects Ontarians to nurses and other #HealthCare services from anywhere at any time – all in one location. https://t.co/oMvLjjlYjd pic.twitter.com/VQPoj2B6Qn
— Ontario Ministry of Health (@ONThealth) April 22, 2022
I haven’t received any updates from the program besides a letter I got confirming that I had been assigned a “care connector” in 2021.
My last physical and blood test was in 2018, and since then, I’ve been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and have had two bouts with COVID-19.
Even though I’m a fairly healthy person with no pressing issues, I’m worried about conditions that could go unchecked or ones that might arise the longer I go without a primary care doctor.
So, I’m documenting my mission to find a family physician, delving into why exactly it’s so difficult to secure one and sharing the experiences of other Canadians who have no access to a doctor.
Step 1: Research, register, email
Along with what I’ve mentioned above, my roommate recommended that I apply to Magenta Health, an organization of family doctors in Toronto.
He and his partner both registered with the health unit in 2022. Although it was a year-long wait, both of them were able to book a slot with a doctor in February and successfully became new patients under Magenta Health.
This made me hopeful — I didn’t mind waiting another year to get a family physician since I had already waited this long. But when I went to the site, I was met with a discouraging message.
“It’s with heavy regret that we have decided to indefinitely close our doors to most new patient registrations,” the site reads.
“While we have capacity for a couple thousand additional patients in the coming months, we think those spots will be quickly filled from our existing backlog of nearly 20,000 already registered individuals.”
Still, I submitted my email to the organization’s notification list. They say registration will only reopen once they have sufficient capacity, which could be this year or later.
I also emailed the South East Toronto Family Health Team after a former manager said they might have openings.
To kick off our valentines “share the love ♥️campaign,” we want to acknowledge our fabulous residents. It’s Resident Doctors of Canada Appreciation Week! As an academic site, we are beyond proud of our residents. Currently we have 34 academic residents, throw them so love ♥️ 🔽 pic.twitter.com/CE50W9aJAe
— SouthEastTorontoFHT (@SETorontoFHT) February 6, 2023
In the meantime, I’ve taken my search to Facebook, scouring for any groups or posts that happen to mention family physicians with openings.
But why does searching for a doctor feel like a second job?
Why it’s so difficult to find a family doctor right now
Canadian Medical Association President Dr. Alika Lafontaine is an anesthesiologist based in Grande Prairie, Alberta.
He depends on family physicians to make sure things go smoothly for him and his patients before, during, and after surgery.
“Family doctors in rural areas like where I live do a variety of different jobs,” the physician told Daily Hive over the phone. “Not only do they provide primary care, but they’re also our emergency doctors, surgical assists, they deliver babies with obstetrics.”
Lafontaine says there are two real challenges family medicine is facing that continue to affect Canadians’ access to it.
“Family practice has become much more difficult for family providers to maintain sustainably,” he explained.
This includes the number of resources they receive, whether it’s income, funding to expand their team, or the capacity to advocate for their patients and navigate the system themselves as a family doctor, says Lafontaine.
“Primary care has become worse because of government decisions on taking resources and support away from family medicine or providing the same amount of resources while increasing the demand,” he said.
He gives the example of the burden falling on family physicians to help identify and trace COVID-19 infections at the beginning of the pandemic without getting more resources.
Besides the physical and emotional work a family doctor’s day may be filled with, Lafontaine says paperwork is also a major source of stress.
In fact, a recent report from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business found that doctors in Canada collectively spend approximately 18.5 million hours on unnecessary paperwork and administrative tasks each year.
That’s equal to a whopping 55.6 million patient visits annually.
“Family physicians are really struggling to keep on top of patients who really need to be seen and need care in a system that isn’t really doing much to help them,” he said.
This contributes to the second challenge, which Lafontaine says is stabilizing the workforce in family medicine.
“We have to stop the flow of physicians leaving family practice and either working in other areas in medicine or decreasing their hours,” he said.
“Frustrated and overwhelmed”
Last May, the Canadian Medical Association sounded alarm bells saying that Canada is “critically” low on family physicians.
The association called for immediate government action during what the organization called “a growing crisis.”
Statistics Canada reported in 2019 that approximately 4.6 million Canadians did not have regular access to a primary care doctor.
Every single Ontarian who wants a family doctor should have one. It’s a basic right that each of us should be able to access a family doctor. But we have more than 2 million people from across all corners of the province who do not have access to a regular family doctor. pic.twitter.com/RPXPINiGF4
— OCFP (@OntarioCollege) February 17, 2023
Fortunately, I haven’t had any major health scares, but there are plenty who are in the same position as me with more urgent needs.
In a callout, Daily Hive asked Canadians to share their experiences trying to find a family doctor, and the consensus is exasperation and hopelessness.
We received responses from people across the country, some have been trying to secure a doctor for as little as a year, while others have been on the hunt for as long as 10 years.
One 35-year-old woman from BC (who has asked to remain anonymous) detailed the ups and downs of trying to secure a physician for 10 years now.
She said she went to the emergency room for a health issue that probably could’ve been dealt with by a family doctor.
“I got scolded for not having a family doctor, and they gave me a list of about 30 family doctors accepting patients,” she said. “I contacted every single doctor on the list, and not one of them was accepting new patients.”
At one point, she thought she had finally bagged a good family doctor, thinking she had been added to his patient list when she met with him. But when she called to book an appointment, she was told that he had retired.
There’s also a recurring pattern in responses of Canadians having to go to packed walk-in clinics (where wait times have skyrocketed in the past year) and then resort to going to the emergency room if they’re not able to get an appointment.
And, of course, there are many ailments that can go unnoticed and ones that, if untreated, can get worse.
One woman from Calgary, who asked to remain anonymous, says she’s started skipping her diabetes medication and even reuses needles because she doesn’t have access to a family doctor to get a prescription.
While many said they were still able to get prescriptions from walk-in clinics, others haven’t had the same luck.
Hannah, a 22-year-old from Ontario, has been looking for a family doctor for over two years. She says before her doctor retired, she was on antidepressants and birth control pills. Now they’ve run out, and she can’t get a refill without a prescription from a physician.
“It really affected me mentally because you’re not supposed to just stop taking the antidepressants right away,” she explained.
Many expressed their frustrations navigating the healthcare system trying to find a doctor.
One Vancouver resident we heard from has been on the hunt for a primary care doctor on and off for a decade. He has had to postpone diagnostic procedures and follow-ups and is also not able to get medication for anxiety and depression.
“I find I’m having to research and figure things out myself in the hopes that I can convince walk-in doctors to help me,” he said.
He added he and his partner had managed to find a great doctor in 2021 and started to receive care and diagnostics for long-ignored issues, only to have that doctor move out of the country unexpectedly and have no replacement available.
“So prescriptions he had written that were supposed to last 6 months were immediately invalidated, we had to make a plea to a walk-in doctor at the clinic to re-issue the prescriptions urgently and it caused a great deal of anxiety.”
“I am so incredibly frustrated and overwhelmed by this process; there are so many different sites with lists that seem to go nowhere… it feels like you’re trapped in an endless loop with only bad options as exits.”
What’s the solution?
Dr. Lafontaine says the answer lies in more resources and funding to create a sustainable practice so family doctors aren’t overwhelmed.
He adds that we also need to change how primary care is practiced and look into other models that foster healthy work environments but also simplify how people get access to care.
One model Lafontaine suggests is team-based care.
“When you go to a family physician’s office, and then you get referred to a physiotherapist, and then you get referred to someone else, then someone else — you have to go to these three or four different places. That’s not team-based care,” he explained. “Team-based care is where you can come to a team, and no matter which door you go through, they can help you navigate to what you need.”
Lastly, Lafontaine says we need to train and recruit more physicians into family medicine, but those work environments will need to improve for this to be successful.
Since it’ll take some time for these systems to be fixed, he advises people to use the resources found in different health regions that share wait times in emergency rooms and provincial sites that show available family physicians in your area.
I haven’t given up on my mission to find a family doctor just yet, but I’ll probably need one ASAP after the Beyoncé concert inevitably leaves me deceased.