A new report looking at three emergency rooms in southern New Brunswick suggests frequent users are more likely to have a family doctor, calling into question the notion that ERs are clogged with people who don't have any other options.
About 60,000 people across the province are currently on a waiting list to get a family doctor, according to the New Brunswick Medical Society.
But the report by Saint John Regional Hospital found 60 per cent of people visiting ERs four or more times a year have a family doctor, said Dr. Paul Atkinson, one of the authors.
The study, entitled Emergency Department Use: Is Frequent Use Associated With a Lack of Primary Care Provider?, looked at about 90,000 ER visits over a one-year period at the Saint John Regional Hospital, St. Joseph's Hospital in Saint John and Sussex Hospital.
Atkinson, who is the director of research for the Saint John Regional Hospital's ER, says people without a family doctor do visit ERs, but do not appear to represent the "frequent" users, who visit four or more times per year.
'It's all well to say, 'You have a primary care provider,' but can you access them in a timely manner for your urgent conditions?' - Dr. Paul Atkinson, Saint John Regional Hospital
The frequent visitors could be patients with chronic illness, or those who can't see their family doctor right away, he said.
"It's all well to say, 'You have a primary care provider,' but can you access them in a timely manner for your urgent conditions? If you felt you had a condition you were concerned about, could you see a family doctor today or tomorrow?"
Atkinson says waiting weeks to see a family physician is unacceptable, but it's not the doctors's fault.
"We're not blaming the doctors here, neither do I think we're blaming anyone. It's just we need to look at how the system can be changed, how access to the system can be changed, how we can can optimize our resources and utilize the extra resources we're not using right now."
Family health teams may help
Last week, the provincial government announced plans for family health teams are moving ahead. The teams will include family doctors, registered nurses, nurse practitioners and other allied health professionals.
Health Minister Ted Flemming contends the collaborative team-based approach will help better meet the specific needs of patients in each community.
"They will improve access to care, chronic disease prevention and management, continuous care and health outcomes," Flemming said in a statement.
A health team has already been established in Miramichi and the department is now accepting letters of interest from family doctors, in select communities, who want to be part of a family health team.
Atkinson says the family health teams are a good start, but there is still more to be done.
Meanwhile, family doctor Mike Simon says patients who have a family doctor should always call their doctor before going to the ER.
"They don't think of it," he said. "A lot of people, when they have an issue and they decide they want to get treated, they go to the first place that comes to mind," the ER.