Montreal

Doctor shortage in Lac-Brome leaves aging patients scrambling to find care

For someone with a chronic health condition, the wait for a new family doctor is expected to take an average of 213 days, according to the online registry that pairs patients with physicians — far too long in a community with an aging population, says one stranded patient.

With 2 doctors retiring on the heels of another who left last year, situation deemed 'critical'

Helen McCubbin, right, and her husband Neil recently lost their family physician of 40 years with the retirement of Dr. William Barakett. Now they've learned someone with a chronic condition like Helen must wait an average of 213 days to get a new doctor. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

After she injured her shoulder in a fall, 71-year-old Helen McCubbin arrived at the Knowlton Medical Clinic just ten minutes after it opened one recent April morning — only to be told the walk-in clinic was already booked up for the day.

A doctor shortage in the Eastern Townships community of Lac-Brome has left more than 3,000 patients without a family physician, including McCubbin, whose doctor of more than 40 years recently retired. 

With two of Lac-Brome's family doctors retiring on the heels of a third who left last year but hasn't yet been replaced, the number of physicians serving the community has been cut in half — from six to three — in the past 18 months.

For someone like McCubbin, who has hypertension and is awaiting a hip replacement, the average wait to find a new doctor will be 213 days, according to the online registry that pairs patients with physicians.

"That's for a patient considered chronic," she said.

An aging population

"I'm a nurse with 50-plus years of experience, and I can find a way around things," McCubbin said. "There are a lot of people that can't, and for them, it's going to be a real crisis."

More than a third of the people in Lac-Brome are over the age of 65, she said.

McCubbin's physician, Dr. William Barakett, had been practising in the community since 1972, and the retired nurse said the impact of losing him is "huge."

Barakett, an outspoken advocate for his rural Quebec patients for decades, said last year he was reluctant to give up his practice until someone had replaced him. However, his own medical problems left him with no choice but to retire last month. 

Dr. Jean-Jacques Barbeau has also had to take sick leave and will retire for good on June 1.

All agree it's a 'critical situation': mayor

At Lac-Brome's town hall, a petition on the counter destined for Health Minister Danielle McCann urges her to act. There are copies of the petition at the local pharmacies and elsewhere in town.

Lac-Brome Mayor Richard Burcombe said he's been working with the province to address the shortage, but he doesn't know when the vacant positions will be filled.

Health Ministry officials have deemed it a "critical situation," he said.

"They can see also that the need for the clinic is there, and the doctors need to be replaced, so everybody's in the same mode, which is great."

Lac-Brome Mayor Richard Burcombe said he is working with the provincial Health Ministry to get more doctors to the community, after the departure of three doctors in the last 18 months. (CBC)

Aside from their own heavy patient load, doctors in Lac-Brome also much cover the walk-in clinic and do rounds at the hospital.

Burcombe said the clinic's rent is now also being split fewer ways, with the three remaining doctors covering the overhead costs.

The situation is being taken seriously, said the spokesperson for the regional health and social services agency in the Eastern Townships, Geneviève Lemay, in an email to CBC.

Lemay said 23 new doctors have been assigned to the CIUSSS de l'Estrie coverage area, but she couldn't say how many would be heading to Lac-Brome, specifically.

Brome-Missisquoi MNA Isabelle Charest was unavailable for an interview, but a spokesperson for her office said the doctor shortage is a priority for her, and she is working on finding a solution.

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