Doctor dilemma: too many waiting for family doctors

Jennifer Leslie was told she was pregnant by an emergency room doctor she had never met before.

She had no family doctor, and when the one at the emergency room informed her she was a “high risk,” she was scared.

“This was my first child. I was going on the word of this ER doctor, and it made me very nervous,” she said.

For weeks after she got the news, Leslie changed her lifestyle. She was as careful as she could be, thinking she might lose her child at any time.

Two months into her pregnancy, Leslie was still going to emergency rooms. This was her first child and had no medical professional to go to with questions. Finally, an emergency room doctor took pity on her and accepted her as a patient, even though her practice was already full.

It was then Leslie found out her pregnancy wasn’t high risk at all, but that the original doctor had misinterpreted her test results, not knowing her medical background.

“When I found out I had been told the wrong information, I felt like not having a family doctor in the province I lived in was ridiculous… It could have been very harmful to me,” she says.

Unfortunately, Leslie’s story is not unique. Most new residents to New Brunswick struggle to find a family doctor, and many end up waiting several years before they actually do.

Horizon Health Network is responsible for prividing health care services to four of the six areas in New Brunswick. Areas have a registry of patients waiting for a family doctor, and in the Fredericton area – with a population of just over 120,000 – there are more than 4,000 people on the registry.

Denise Coulombe is a physician recruitment officer for the Fredericton area.

In a recent phone interview she admitted that having thousands of people waiting to get a family doctor is problematic.

“Anyone who’s waiting for a physician is someone who shouldn’t be on that list,” she said, although she insisted that compared to other regions, the number is low.

Coulombe said she is part of a team of four recruiters “continuoulsy working” to bring new doctors to the Fredericton area.

She explained a new doctor can take on anywhere from 1200-1500 patients, so three new community-based family physicians would fill the need in the Fredericton area.

However, with long-practicing doctors retiring every year, bringing in enough new doctors to fill the void is very difficult.

Coulombe pointed out that there are likely many more people without doctors who simply aren’t on the list. She also said that the 4081 patients on the registry represents today’s number, but that can change significantly at any time.

“If it just takes a physician who has a 4,000 patient practice to God forbid drop dead, then what do I do?” she asked.

Coulombe said attracting young resident doctors to New Brunswick is challenging, because the region is competing with the whole world.

She insisted, however, that her team is constantly visiting recruitment fairs around the country to bring as many doctors to New Brunswick as possible.

In spite of this, she said she doesn’t see a time in the near future where there won’t be a waiting list for family doctors in New Brunswick.

Leslie had first put her name on the patient registry in 2005, and added it again a second time several years later. By the time she got pregnant in 2010 she still hadn’t found a doctor.

Instead, she had to go to emergency rooms and clinics. And this is what most of the thousands of people without family doctors have to do too.

This kind of medical treatment presents many problems. Leslie explains that even when she wasn’t pregnant, it was hard to get good treatment at clinics because she was seeing a different doctor every time.

She wasn’t able to build any kind of trust relationship with a doctor, and had to explain her medical history every time she went in. She had to wait hours and hours to be seen, and found the doctors were always rushed – whisking her in and out as fast as they possibly could.

Another resident of the Fredericton area, called “Melanie” for the purpose of this story, says her health has suffered terribly because of her inability to find a family doctor.

Melanie is fed up with her medical treatment in New Brunswick, and is on the verge of moving back to her home province of BC because of it. Like Leslie, she has waited years for a family doctor.

Melanie has two kids, and remembers sitting with her two sick children for hours in clinic waiting rooms wondering what she was going to do.

“I would wait for hours in this stupid clinic, with a child with a fever, trying to keep my other child entertained and just stress about all the [stuff] that needed to get done at home while I’m waiting here,” she recalls.

Along with one child who is often sick, Melanie herself has a thyroid condition for which she has simply stopped getting her perscription filled because she doesn’t have the time to do it.

She thinks her health, as well as the health of her kids, has suffered a lot because of their years without a family doctor.

“I’ve had enough of putting my health off,” she said.

Melanie, as well as more than 4000 others, will have to continue to do so.

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