British Columbia

Barely a year after finally finding a family doctor, these Victoria patients have lost theirs

Doctors are leaving an urgent and primary care centre in Victoria — and it’s just one example of ongoing struggles to provide more British Columbians with access to family doctors.

B.C.'s primary care centres, which are supposed to alleviate the family doctor shortage, can’t keep up

Victoria residents and roommates Bill Sumberg and Elaine Laberge are both patients at the James Bay Urgent and Primary Care Centre. Sumberg's doctor left the practice in August and Laberge's will leave in November. (Ken Mizokoshi/ CBC)

Patients at an urgent and primary care centre in Victoria, B.C., are feeling disappointed and abandoned after several doctors at the clinic have announced their departures within 18 months of opening day. 

The James Bay Urgent and Primary Care Centre, which opened in April 2020, has had at least three family doctors leave or announce plans to leave since August.

Urgent and primary care centres, or UPCCs, are part of the B.C. government's efforts to get primary health care for more British Columbians. The centres are both funded and run publicly, as opposed to traditional doctor's offices, which are private businesses.

B.C. has the second highest rate of residents without a regular health-care provider. According to Statistics Canada, that rate was 17.7 per cent in 2019, up from 16.2 per cent in 2015. Only Quebec fares worse.

Island Health, which operates the James Bay clinic, would not confirm how many doctors or nurse practitioners have left since it opened, nor how many have been replaced.

But for three patients who had been ecstatic to finally have a doctor of their own, the disappointment of losing their doctors just a short time later has been hard to take. 

'I didn't have to feel shame'

Elaine Laberge lives in poverty and felt her health couldn't be managed by quick visits at walk-in clinics. 

She said the doctor she found at the James Bay urgent care centre understood her life experience and took it into account when treating her. 

"I didn't have to explain certain things, I didn't have to feel shame, I didn't have to feel stigma. He understood how poverty impacts an entire life ... all parts of your health. It was more than wonderful," she said. 

Laberge's doctor is leaving the clinic in mid-November. CBC has not been able to confirm why, though one of the three doctors has opened a private cosmetic medicine practice in Victoria.

The James Bay Urgent and Primary Care Centre opened in April 2020. It was the third UPCC to open in the Island Health Region. According to Island Health, it has seen 30,327 patient visits as of October 2021, since its opening. (Ken Mizokoshi/ CBC)

UPCCs are staffed with doctors, but also nurse practitioners, nurses, and sometimes other health workers like mental health specialists.

They are supposed to act as both walk-in clinics that provide urgent care and a possible alternative to an emergency room visit, and a family doctor's office where you can be "attached" to a health-care team — a place that would have your file, and where you could make appointments for checkups to manage ongoing health concerns. 

'Fancy walk-in clinic'

Damien Contandriopoulos, a public health researcher, says the troubles at the James Bay UPCC are a sign that the model isn't working to solve B.C.'s family doctor problems.

Contandriopoulos says the centres are not a bad idea on paper, but it's a challenge for one location, and one set of staff, to be what he calls a "fancy walk-in clinic" and a family practice all at once. 

Laberge's roommate, Bill Sumberg, is also a patient at the James Bay clinic. He had cancer 13 years ago and is supposed to have follow-ups every few years to make sure the cancer hasn't returned.

He was supposed to have a follow-up appointment later this year, but his doctor left in August. He figured he'd see Laberge's doctor instead, but now her doctor is leaving, too, so he's not sure who he'll see.

Patients have been told they will still be treated by the clinic. A letter from one departing doctor said the clinic "will commit to offer timely access to care, to the best of the team's ability and as reasonably as possible given the clinical circumstances." 

Margarita Coppard, whose doctor is leaving in November, suspects she'll have to wait longer to get appointments now, but is confident she and her children, ages 12 and 14, will be able to get urgent care when they need it. 

However, she says she's frustrated she can't get her 65-year-old mother, who moved to Victoria in April of this year, signed up at the clinic. Coppard assumed she'd have to get on a waiting list but was surprised to find out she couldn't even do that. 

According to the clinic's website, with 2,298 patients, it cannot add any more so it "implemented a temporary pause on accepting new applicants" in May. 

Health Minister Adrian Dix acknowledged the problems at the James Bay clinic, and said "we're going to work to get that clinic staffed up." 

However, he said the UPCC structure is "working extremely well" and care centres in places like Victoria, Nanaimo, Vancouver, and Prince George "have been a godsend in the pandemic."


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