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Yukoners go to emergency room for basic care, after territory's last walk-in clinic closes

Yukoners without a family doctor are being forced to go to the emergency room for basic medical care, since the last walk-in clinic in the territory closed in August.

Wait to get a family doctor in Yukon is up to 2 years — and the wait-list is growing

Greg Penner, 59, is one of the thousands of Yukoners on the wait-list for a family doctor in Yukon. (Submitted by Greg Penner)

For 23 years, Marianne Blythe didn't worry about getting medical care when she needed it.

She was a regular patient of the River Valley Medical walk-in clinic in Whitehorse and never had trouble getting an appointment.

But when the doctor she was seeing recently left town, the clinic stopped taking walk-in patients. It was the only remaining walk-in medical clinic in the territory.

"I feel very betrayed. I feel betrayed by a system that I have supported all my life," Blythe, 71, said.

"And as I age, I expect that the things that I have supported will be there to help me."

Blythe wants to see more action from the territorial government — including a new walk-in clinic sooner than later — and more incentives for students in the territory to become doctors.

2,472 Yukoners on wait-list for family doctor

Blythe is now one of the 2,472 Yukoners on the territorial government's wait-list to get a family doctor. 

And waiting for a family doctor has meant even more waiting for Blythe. 

She said she has spent about five hours in the emergency room on two recent occasions, just to get a doctor's signature for regular blood work needed for her chronic condition.

"I get very angry because I don't know the logistics of running an emergency ward, but I know that my being there costs an awful lot of money and there are people who are really sick, who need that," she said.

The River Valley Medical Clinic in Whitehorse stopped taking walk-in patients in August. It was the territory's only walk-in medical clinic. (Danielle d'Entremont/CBC)

The lack of a walk-in clinic comes as Yukon's hospital system is under strain. The territory is in the middle of a COVID-19 outbreak that has left it with the highest rate of active cases in the country.

And according to a Yukon Hospital Corporation spokesperson, the number of non-emergency visits to the Whitehorse General Hospital's emergency department — such as for prescription refills and common colds — is going up. 

These types of visits made up 4.4 per cent of all patients from April to June, and that number went up to seven per cent from July to September, Matthew Davidson wrote in an email to CBC News.

'This healthcare system is shortening my life'

Greg Penner, 59, is another one of the thousands of Yukoners on the territorial government's family doctor wait-list. 

To be exact, he and his wife are numbers 1,494 and 1,495 on the list, as of the beginning of this month.

That's according to an email Penner received from the registration team at the Department of Health and Social Services after he reached out to see if there were any updates since they signed up seven months ago, in April. 

The email also said that if either Penner or his wife "really need to see a doctor," they should go to the emergency room.

He and his wife have been fortunate, he said, with no pre-existing or pressing health issues. And though he isn't a senior yet, Penner knows the stakes of not getting continual and preventative care as they age are high.

Non-urgent visits to the Whitehorse hospital's emergency department are up, according to a Yukon Hospital Corporation. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

"I am going to die sooner, because right now ... the model of the medical care is, 'don't come to see us until you're really, really sick,'" said Penner.

He worries that without a family doctor he won't have regular access to monitoring for major illnesses like cancer, heart disease or strokes.

"That quite literally means this health care system is shortening my life."

Wait-list to see family doctor up to 2 years long

The Find a Family Doctor program was launched by the territorial government two years ago.

Since then, it has matched 1,043 people with family doctors, but the list of people waiting to be matched continues to grow after recent physician office closures.

According to a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services, the average wait time to get a match is 225 days. At most, the department said the wait has been just shy of two years, at 720 days.

"The Government of Yukon continues to work with the Yukon Medical Association on the recruitment and retention of physicians," said spokesperson Julie Ménard. 

"We are working to expand nurse practitioners to serve communities, aging people, and expand access to virtual care alternatives."

Need for more holistic and preventative care 

Lillian Nakamura Maguire is a coordinating team member for Seniors Action Yukon, a volunteer group advocating on behalf of seniors' issues.

"If you don't have your health care needs taken care of and … people are left without care for a long period of time, things can deteriorate. And for many seniors … they are more vulnerable populations," Maguire said.

But Maguire said the answer is to provide access to many different medical services, not just family doctors.

"There is a need for long-term care, but a lot of those needs could be better taken care of and ... less expense if we had more home care workers and services … as well as preventive kind of services," she said.

As for Marianne Blythe, she isn't so sure she has time to wait for an overhaul of the system. If things don't change for her by the spring, she plans to move south for better care.

"I'm going to be forced to leave the Yukon … and I'm heartbroken about it. I have given my best to the Yukon. Yukon's been very good to me. But on this issue, I will have to say 'ciao.'

"I have received some long-term service awards, and I would like to give them back to Premier Sandy Silver and his crew and say, 'thank you for nothing.'"

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