‘Overwhelmed’ family doctors in Sask. unable to help strained ERs

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A scarcity of family doctors is putting pressure on emergency rooms, says the Saskatchewan College of Family Practitioners.

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Saskatchewan doctors say a continued surge of illness across the province and ongoing lack of available family doctors is exacerbating current pressures on the entire health care system.

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Few primary care clinics are accepting new patients right now, especially those in city centres like Saskatoon and Regina, said Saskatchewan College of Family Physicians president Dr. Andries Muller on Wednesday.

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He said it’s creating a negative domino effect, and increasing pressures on already overwhelmed emergency rooms.

“We don’t have enough family doctors for every patient in this province, and that’s not going to get better anytime soon. We’re worrying it may get worse,” he said.

Many patients are skipping long queues in waiting rooms and instead going to urgent care resources, for things like medication refills and chronic care.

“That’s the only place they can get that care,” he said. “But if emergency rooms are overcrowded with those things, stuff that should be done in a primary care setting, they cannot deal with other things.”

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Dr. Adam Ogeiglo, a a family physician who splits his time between an urgent care clinic and his private practice in Saskatoon, said he has seen a marked increase in the number of patients in his waiting room over the last six months.

“We’re seeing three- or four-hour waits as pretty standard, even upwards of six or seven hours,” he said.

He regularly hears requests to take on new patients, as it is difficult to get in with a family doctor and wait times at walk-in clinics are ballooning.

“People are asking, ‘how do I get a family doctor?’ and there really is no response to that question,” Ogeiglo said. “We’re trying to help as many people as we can, through this transition time.”

Ogieglo said the situation is concerning, especially as he’s seeing an “unprecedented” level of infection spreading this fall.

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Ninety-five per cent of test swabs he has processed recently have returned positive for influenza, and he’s seeing patients come in with symptoms also linked to COVID-19, rhinovirus and pneumonia.

“I’ve called it a symphony of viruses,” he said. “People are feeling really lousy with it. There’s lots of lots of sick kids, lots of parents that are nervous because they’re having trouble finding Tylenol and Advil.”

On its website, the Saskatchewan Health Authority no longer provides a compiled list of doctors accepting new patients in the province. Instead, it now offers a list of clinics by region with instructions to contact them directly about availabilities.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson said the change occurred “this fall” and was due to difficulties keeping the list updated with “accuracy.”

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“The majority of Saskatchewan physicians own and operate their clinics as independent businesses. The SHA is therefore unable to determine which clinics are accepting new patients,” said the statement.

Muller said the change makes it tough on those seeking continuing care, and on doctors who are having to turn people away because they don’t have time for more patients.

“Many doctors, we’re just human, so we feel guilty about the fact that we can’t see everyone,” he said. “We’re overwhelmed. We feel overburdened.”

He said the visible burnout is scaring new doctors away, with only 10 per cent of this year’s graduating medical students in Saskatchewan choosing to go into family medicine.

The ideal solution would be to increase the number of full-time, family doctors practising, said Muller, and a rework of the current fee-for-service compensation model into a teams-based model — a call that’s been made before from physicians.

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Neither of these are “an overnight, quick fix,” he admitted, but stop-gap solutions are few.

Last week, chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said that public health anticipated seeing more flu cases this fall compared to the last two years.

Ogieglo said he finds it “hard to believe” public health was prepared for the level of illness currently sweeping through the province.

“It’s been very hard on patients, on parents of children that are sick,” he said. “I just can’t imagine a world where public health sees the writing on the wall, in terms of where this is going, and doesn’t step up and say, we need to prevent that from happening.”

Ogeiglo said encouraging people to wear masks indoors, stay home when ill and get a flu vaccine is his short-term solution for now, to help preserve what capacity is left.

“The foundation of any health-care system is a good primary care system,” Muller said. “And if the foundation is crumbling, the rest will crumble too.”

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