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It’s Just Impossible to Get a Family Doctor in Ottawa

I was sick a lot when I was a kid. Nothing very serious, really, but I caught every single bug—I even got scarlet fever, and the disease is pretty rare these days. Every once in a while, I would wake up with a fever and my mother would quickly assess the situation—a cold, the flu, something else? If she wasn’t sure, she would call the doctor.

Our General Practitioner had his practice a few blocks from where we lived. He was a very smart, albeit cynical, qualified doctor. Every morning, he would meet patients at his practice, and every afternoon, unless an emergency popped up, he would take his black leather bag and make house calls in the city centre. He came to our place dozens of times. “My throat hurts,” I would complain. “Just play dead, stay home, rest, and you’ll be okay,” he’d reply. And he was invariably right.

This was France in the 1980s. Even though most French like to brag that they have the best health system in the world, times have changed. One day, our GP packed his bags and left god-knows-where. Family doctors rarely make house calls these days unlike they practise in a small village. And rural areas have a hard time attracting healthcare professionals anyway. There is a shortage of specialists and family doctors in some places, and because of soaring costs (the health system has been in the red since 1989), service cuts are the norm.

I know that we were spoiled in France back in the day. I don’t expect house calls in Canada. I just want a family doctor.

I’m one of these many Canadians who don’t have a family doctor. Canada has a health care practitioner shortage and many doctors don’t take new patients.

I got my first health card in 2005 when I became a permanent resident. This gave me the right to benefit from the many health care services paid for by OHIP, the Ontario Health Assurance Plan. Unfortunately, the card didn’t come with the following warning, which I think should be mandatory: “The quality of care is excellent but good luck accessing the system.”

Alright, it’s not like Canada let me down completely. If I’m sick, I can either self-medicate, go to a walk-in clinic or go to the ER. But because self-medicating has limits and because I wouldn’t want to clog the ER with a minor problem, I’m left with walk-in clinics. Clinics, such as Appletree welcome patients without appointments and treat minor illnesses. The problem is often the wait times: you can wait for a few hours before you get to see a doctor for a few minutes. The focus is on cost and patients are often rushed in and out. Basically, this is not where you will build ties with a doctor (you usually see a different person every time, depending on whoever is on duty) and a lot of clinics specify that you can only address one problem per visit.

I’ve been trying to get a family doctor for almost six years now. It’s a frustrating process that involves picking up a phone book and calling all the practices around. “Hi, I was just wondering if Doctor XYZ was taking new patients.” “No, he/she doesn’t.” Move on to the next name.

Last year, I registered with Health Care Connect. This is an Ontario program that refers people like me who don’t have a GP to a local doctor or nurse practitioner who is accepting new patients. So far, no results. I get a letter every six months or so basically asking me if by any chance I found a GP on my own because so far, they haven’t found one for me.

Do I really need a family doctor? Well, yes and no. I’m pretty healthy (knock on wood!) and walk-in clinics are still available. Yet it would be nice to have a GP who knows my health history and could follow up. I should have booster vaccinations and I haven’t had a check-up since my mandatory immigration health exam in 2005.

Last fall, I thought I had gotten lucky. I called a practice who invited me to sign up for a “meet & greet” with a doctor accepting new patients. I made an appointment for February. When I called back to confirm the appointment last week, I have been told that my “meet & greet” has been moved to June for absolutely no reason. The receptionist also specified the doctor was not accepting new patients anymore. I will go to the appointment in June (if it’s not moved again!) but I’m basically back to square one, calling all the practices within a 20-kilometre radius. It’s just so frustrating. A new practice opened a ten-minute walk from where I live but the doctor already doesn’t accept new patients.

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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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