Medical clinic short on patients

By Michelle Lang, Calgary Herald

At a time when nearly a quarter of all Calgarians don’t have a regular family physician, a new medical clinic in the city is struggling with the opposite problem: a shortage of patients.

The Calgary Foothills Primary Care Centre has signed up only 200 people since opening its doors more than three months ago — a significantly smaller number than the clinic’s target of between 1,000 and 1,500 patients.

Doctors say the situation is baffling, noting they expected a flood of interest when they established the clinic to serve the growing number of people who don’t have a family physician and suffer from a chronic disease such as diabetes.

“We thought, ‘If we built it, they will come.’ We’re not sure why that hasn’t happened,” said Dr. Richard Ward, a family physician who helped establish the clinic.

“We were told we would be full in one month.”

Ward’s comments come as Calgary grapples with a shortage of family doctors that has left an estimated 200,000 people without a regular physician.

The local shortage has been compounded by the number of physicians who are nearing retirement age and dozens of family doctors who are closing their offices because of rising overhead costs.

A group of physicians in the city’s northwest, known as the Calgary-Foothills Primary Care Network, wanted to tackle the problem of so-called unattached patients — patients without a family doctor — by establishing the clinic.

Officials with the primary care network also hoped to address the growing number of patients who are suffering from chronic diseases.

“We thought, ‘this is an area where we can make a big impact,’ ” said Lorraine Bucholtz, director of service delivery with the primary care network.

The network opened the Calgary-Foothills Primary Care Centre in mid-December, accepting unattached patients who live in the northwest and suffer from one of five chronic diseases: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In addition to two part-time physicians, the clinic has a large team of other health professionals — including a nurse practitioner, pharmacists and a dietitian — to help patients better manage patients’ diseases.

Bucholtz and other primary care network officials acknowledge part of the clinic’s problem attracting patients might be the strict criteria for acceptance. The network is considering adding more conditions, such as arthritis and mental illness.

But Bucholtz believes the bigger problem is a lack of referrals to the clinic. She said 97 per cent of patients at Calgary-Foothills Primary Care Centre found the clinic by themselves, meaning only three per cent were referred. Bucholtz and Ward say overworked physicians and nurses at hospitals don’t appear to be sending patients to the clinic, even though the Calgary-Foothills Primary Care Network is a partnership with the Calgary Health Region.

“These resources exist, but it’s not top of mind (for health workers),” said Ward, who heads up chronic disease prevention and management for the primary care network.

The clinic isn’t the only program established by a primary care network that is facing this issue. Officials with the South Calgary Primary Care Network, which serves the southern end of the city, established the “reserved appointment program” that has failed to attract as many patients as expected. Under the program, participating family doctors leave time in their schedule for patients who don’t have a family doctor, but require followup care after they go to a hospital or urgent care clinic.

“You would think it would be busting at the seams (with patients),” said Marny Conlon, executive director with the South Calgary Primary Care Network. “But the uptake has been marginal.”

As in northwest Calgary, Conlon said health facilities don’t seem to be referring patients to the program.

Calgary Health Region officials say they are confident more patients will use the clinic and the program, noting both services are relatively new. Dr. Nick Myers, medical director for primary care with the region, said staff at CHR facilities do send patients, adding the CHR is working to improve the number of referrals.

Calgary Foothills Primary Care Centre

– A medical clinic in northwest Calgary where patients receive care from a team of health professionals, including doctors, nurses and dieticians.

– Prospective patients must live in northwest Calgary, have no family doctor and suffer from one of the following: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

– Clinic’s phone number is 374-0244.

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