The ER is for emergencies but more and more, patients who don’t have a family physician are showing up there as the Saanich Peninsula deals with a critical doctor shortage.

“It’s been very serious for a number of years but it’s growing as doctors are beginning to retire,” explains Karen Morgan, executive director of the Saanich Peninsula Hospital & Healthcare Foundation.

Three doctors just retired and a fourth is about to close up shop – leaving thousands of patients scrambling to find a physician.

“We had a family doctor who retired and he gave is practice over to somebody else and unless you got in in the first couple of weeks, the new person had no room for anybody else,” patient Tara MacDonald says.

There are now 15,000 patients — almost a quarter of the Peninsula’s population — without a doctor. Many are families, seniors and people with chronic health issues who need a doctor most.

“Staff in doctor’s officers are being mistreated because patient’s fear and frustration is growing,” Morgan says.

There are also long line-ups at the region’s three walk-in clinics, which have limited hours and aren’t open weekends.

“They are overburdened and they’re having to turn away people that are very stressed,” explains Sheila Leadbetter, Island Health’s Saanich Peninsula & Gulf Islands director.

The prescription? A $2 million fundraising campaign by the Saanich Peninsula Hospital & Healthcare Foundation to open an emergency walk-in clinic in Sidney and two new primary care centres in Sidney and Brentwood Bay.

Recruiting new doctors has proven to be very challenging. Many retiring physicians can’t even find doctors to take over their practices.

That’s because young doctors often don’t want the overhead and want more work/life balance but health officials here are confident that if they build the right model, they can fill the positions.

“If we have the kind of facility young doctors want to practice in — modern with adequate support staff and electronic medical records and they don’t have to deal with the business side, we’re very hopeful we can recruit,” says Morgan.

The team-based primary care centres would have nurses, pharmacists, counsellors, social workers, occupational therapists and other professionals working under to deliver more efficient health care and free up doctors to see more patients.

In the meantime, two new nurse practitioners are being hired for the Peninsula Health Unit in the next few weeks. The Peninsula currently only has one nurse practitioner and her waiting list is so long, she’s stopped adding patients.

“They do all the physicals that a primary care physician would do, they can order medication, prescribe medication and diagnostics, and they can diagnose and treat illness and chronic diseases,” explains Leadbetter. “We’re hoping that will alleviate at least some of the pressures.”

 

Tess van Straaten