How to find a family doctor

Five million Canadians—approximately 15 per cent of the population—don’t have a family doctor. Here, College of Family Physicians of Canada president Dr. Ruth Wilson shares tips on how these people can get themselves a physician.

Kate Lunau

Canada’s in the grip of a severe doctor shortage, and most of us know it all too well—who hasn’t struggled, at some point, to find and keep a family physician? With just 2.2 doctors per 1,000 people in this country, Canada ranks last among G8 countries in terms of doctor-to-population ratio. In fact, the College of Family Physicians of Canada estimates that up to five million Canadians don’t have a family doctor. These people (up to 15 per cent of the country’s population) will be sicker and cost the healthcare system more money than those with a dedicated physician, studies have shown.

Here, CFPC president Dr. Ruth Wilson—a practicing family physician and professor of medicine at Queen’s University—shares tips on how those five million people can find a family physician.

1. Ask family members for a referral.

If you’re referred by a close family member, a doctor might accept you as a patient even if he or she has no official openings, Wilson says: “It makes it more convenient for the patient and more satisfying for the doctor too. It’s easier to get to know [patients] that way.â€? But if a doctor hasn’t accepted you as a patient, don’t just tag along with a family member to his or her appointment and assume the physician will see you. “That doesn’t go down well,” Wilson says. “You’ve scheduled time for yourself, and all of a sudden you’ve got two people to look after.â€?

2. Turn to your wider social network—friends, co-workers, gym buddies…

Ask everybody you can if they know of a doctor accepting new patients, Wilson suggests. You never know what will turn up, and a referral from a friend or acquaintance can only help convince a doctor to see you.

3. Check with the provincial office of the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

These colleges generally list doctors who are accepting new patients, either through a website, 1-800 number or another method, Wilson says. The Ontario college’s website, for example, has a search function where orphaned patients can hunt for a doctor. But, cautions Wilson, these pages can frequently be out-of-date ( phoned several offices listed on the Ontario page as accepting physicians, only to learn they were not). “I wouldn’t say it’s a foolproof way, particularly in this time of shortage,” the CFPC president says.

4. Phone a hospital’s emergency department.

These departments sometimes keep lists of family doctors who are accepting new patients, as they tend to get visits from those without a regular physician, Wilson says.

5. Try to get on the waiting list at a large clinic.

Some clinics keep waiting lists and accept new patients as new doctors join the practice, Wilson says. Although waiting times at different clinics may vary, “in [my Kingston] clinic, the list is moving, and they do take people,� she says.

6. If you’re desperate, go to the walk-in clinic.

If you absolutely need treatment or referral to a specialist, visit the local walk-in clinic. If you’re a frequent visitor, make an effort to see the same physician every time, Wilson suggests. “If you’re able to see the same doctor, you can at least establish a relationship and get some kind of continuity,” she says, adding that some walk-in clinic physicians do occasionally open small practices, and may be willing to take you on as a patient if they do.

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