Navigating the healthcare system requires an endless supply of patience.
At Shelbourne Medical Clinic in Saanich, the automated phone message informed would-be patients that the clinic was at capacity by 10:30 a.m. Monday.
“We did a count the other day,” says Dr. Lorne Verhulst, the clinic’s medical director. “We’ve got about 8,700 patients who’ve seen us in the last two years.”
Last week the clinic sent out an email to its patient base, informing them the clinic will be closed in the spring.
“I’m planning to close the clinic and retire at the end of March,” says Verhulst.
He says no doctors have come forward to assume the privately run walk-in clinic, which used to be home to multiple family practices and a brisk walk-in facility. Verhulst says it’s difficult to walk away from his career, but feels for patients left with a gap in care.
“It’s sad, but I’m mostly sad for the patients who’ll have to scramble. The fact that people have entrusted me with their personal care over the years, that’s not lost on me,” he says.
Verhulst says younger physicians are opting to work in settings like urgent primary care centres operated by provincial health authorities rather than take on the challenge of running their own business. The incentive is no longer there thanks to administrative headaches, liability and personal commitment.
“The appetite to be an entrepreneur and run a clinic among younger physicians has just evaporated,” he says.
A patient advocacy group called BC Healthcare Matters agrees.
“They see a system that’s not supporting them so they’re looking for somewhere where they don’t have too much commitment, where they don’t have to put too much on the line and personally risk,” says founder Camille Currie.
As for the challenge facing British Columbians in accessing timely medical care, Verhulst cites recent improvements like an uptick in pay for family doctors and a new patient registry could help attract more physicians.
He’d like to eventually see a system that resembles a sort of catchment care.
“Like, say, the school system,” he explains. “You can go enroll in the local school if you live in the area, and that school can’t say, ‘Sorry, we aren’t taking any new pupils right now.'”
The B.C. government has stepped in to keep some Greater Victoria walk-in clinics from closing in recent years, and it has said its new urgent and primary care centres are there to help those left without a doctor.
Finding a doctor requires both luck and timing, something Currie says should never be associated with healthcare. “It breaks my heart a little to hear someone say they’re lucky to have a family doctor,” she says.