The doctor is in

Don’t have a family doctor? A little sleuthing and perseverence can be a prescription for success

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If you’re one of the estimated five million Canadians without a family doctor, you’re used to waiting; in walk-in clinics for a gruff GP who doesn’t know you from Eve; at home for that forever-promised referral to come through; in ERs with your kid whose temperature is spiking. If only you could see a real pro who knew you and could help you through these crises.

But the odds of finding a doctor McDreamy or McCrusty are pretty slim. In some provinces, only one-tenth of family physicians are taking new patients, and demand will only grow as the baby boomers age. At the same time, only about 25 per cent of med-school grads enter family practices, compared to 50 per cent in 1992. “Family doctors have a better rapport with their patients, but they’re financially less rewarded than specialists,” laments Melissa de Souza, a second-year medical student at the University of Toronto who, despite the inferior salary, hopes to become a GP.

The dwindling doctor count shouldn’t dissuade you from starting your search. Studies have shown that patients monitored over the long term by a regular GP are healthier than those who aren’t. “When a health problem becomes significant, you really need a familiar face,” says Dr. Tom Bailey, president of the College of Family Physicians of Canada. A family doctor will make those crucial extra phone calls on your behalf to grease the wheels of the health care system. “They’re better able to understand the context of your life situation and how to best treat your condition,” Dr. Bailey says So if you’re an orphan patient, don’t despair; our tips will help get you up on the examining table in no time.

1. Ask everyone you know Start with family. Doctors usually agree to treat members of the same household. Otherwise, even if a GP’s practice is officially closed to new patients, you can squeeze in the side door if you’ve got someone who can plead your case. “If your friend knows your health situation, he or she might be able to convince the doctor to let you in,” says Dr. Bailey.

2. Offer a personal touch Sudbury cardiologist Dr. Ron Baigrie, author of Becoming a Priority Patient: Keys to Becoming an Insider in the Health Care System, says an effective but seldom-used way to woo a family doctor is to deliver a personalized, typed letter outlining your entire medical history, explaining why you need his or her care. “Most patients are lousy communicators, and this is a way of showing that you’re special,” Baigrie says.

3. Get ’em while they’re young Call a teaching hospital’s family medicine unit, where you can see a GP-in-training while she completes two years of residency (under close supervision). Ask her if she plans to go on to practice in your area. “Even if they can’t take you with them, they’ll pass you on to the next incoming resident,” says Dr. Patricia Windrim, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Toronto.

4. Search your provincial College of Physicians website Each province has an organization that grants medical licenses to doctors, and in many cases, a searchable online database where you can enter your postal code and find the nearest GPs who are accepting new patients. Act fast; spaces fill up quickly.

5. Call your local medical society These are doctors’ professional associations at the city or county level that are often attached to a hospital. Many maintain lists of local family physicians accepting new patients and sometimes update them more frequently than provincial licensing bodies.

6. See a nurse practitioner (NP) These are nurses who have additional training that allows them to prescribe drugs, order tests and handle 80 per cent of a family doctor’s caseload. Some NPs run their own practices, especially in small towns, while others work in partnership with a GP. Don’t think of them as second-rate nurses – a survey showed most patients are just as satisfied with care from a nurse practitioner as from a family doctor.

7. Ask if there’s a waiting list Even if it takes a year or more, getting that coveted spot on a good doctor’s patient roster may be worth the wait. In the meantime, if the practice has an attached walk-in clinic, use it – you’ll be in a better position to find out when a space opens up or a new GP is hired.

8. Find a private clinic If you can spare the cash, you’ll receive executive-class medical treatment. Copeman Health Care, a Vancouver-based clinic, has plans to open locations in most major cities by the end of the year, offers unlimited time with your doctor, access to a team of in-house specialists, same-day appointments and 24/7 telephone advice for $3,500 for the first year.

9. Work the Yellow Pages It’s a scattershot approach, but you may luck out and find a doctor close to where you live or work. If a receptionist tells you her boss isn’t taking new patients, ask her if she knows any doctors who are.

10. Get involved Rural communities are trying to lure doctors with a host of incentives, including government-funded bonuses. Volunteer to help raise money for a scholarship to help pay off a prospective GP’s hefty student loans, or work a booth at a job fair to sell your town to medical students.