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Pam Frampton: Is there a doctor in the house?

Thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who have no family physician are forced to turn to busy emergency departments or walk-in clinics — if they are lucky enough to have access to those options. —
Thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who have no family physician are forced to turn to busy emergency departments or walk-in clinics — if they are lucky enough to have access to those options. — 123RF Stock Photo

Thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have no family physician; I just joined their number

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the same family physician care for them for much of their life, but I was one of those people.

Randy Hart became my doctor when I was a student at Memorial University in St. John’s. He practised at White Hills Medical Clinic on Newfoundland Drive — less than a five-minute walk away from my apartment.

After graduation I moved to Ontario, but when I moved back home I became his patient again. Dr. Hart was my physician for more than 30 years — all of my adult life so far. He was there with his dry wit, calm demeanour and warm and generous nature through the best of times and the worst of times. I never had to wait too long for an appointment and he always listened and respected my concerns. Mostly importantly, he never just automatically reached for the prescription pad.

He was the kind of doctor you actually looked forward to seeing — even though that meant you weren’t feeling well. He would pepper me with questions about issues in the news while taking my blood pressure, and then tell me to stop talking when I tried to respond. We laughed a lot. He practiced the best kind of caring medicine and I am grateful to have been among his patients.

Dr. Hart retired June 29th after a long and dedicated career. For him, I think the decision was bittersweet; he truly cared about his patients but also didn’t want to be one of those doctors who stayed on too long.

I’m happy he’s finally getting a break.

But with his retirement, I became a patient without a doctor — and that profound feeling of being medically orphaned is both a testament to how good a doctor he was and also a symptom of a problem that’s personal to me but provincial in scope.

According to information provided by the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association (NLMA), Statistics Canada reported in 2014 that approximately 50,000 people in this province — roughly 10 per cent — were without a family physician.

The NLMA’s own data, based on polling it commissions each year from Corporate Research Associates, pegs that number at 13 per cent, both last year and this year.

But with his retirement, I became a patient without a doctor — and that profound feeling of being medically orphaned is both a testament to how good a doctor he was and also a symptom of a problem that’s personal to me but provincial in scope.

And the NLMA’s report Family Medicine in N.L.: A Ten Year Vision explains that there are regional differences; while I am in a part of the province where the percentage of people might actually be 13 per cent or less, in central Newfoundland 15 per cent of the population doesn’t have a family doctor, while in Labrador that figure rises to one third.

The reasons are complicated; physicians practising in remote areas often work without support from specialists and face heavy patient loads which make it difficult to find a healthy work-life balance. The cost of living is high and the climate can be harsh, which must make offers of work in jurisdictions with better weather, lower taxes and with the support of a primary care team very attractive.

The NLMA reports that “according to the 2017 CMA Physician Workforce Survey, Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest proportion of physicians who plan to relocate to another province in Canada. Fourteen per cent of N.L. physicians said they plan to leave for another province within the next two years compared to the national average of 3.1 per cent.”

I’m in good health, but it’s unsettling to realize that if I suddenly found a lump somewhere or began suffering from debilitating headaches or joint pain or the horrors of menopause, I’d have few options. I can’t imagine the worry for people who are sick now and have nowhere to turn.

I’ve been calling clinics in my area, but the answer to my question is always the same.

“Are you taking any new patients?”

“No.”

As one receptionist put it gently on Monday, “My love, we haven’t taken any new patients in years.”

Pam Frampton is a columnist whose work is published in The Western Star and The Telegram. Email pamela.frampton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton

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