How to get the health care you want if you don't have a family doctor

Worried about how to get a referral to a specialist? Walk-in clinics can help those without a family doctor, says health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton.

You can still get referred to a specialist at a walk-in clinic

Health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton says Nova Scotians without a family doctor should expect the same level of care from walk-in clinics. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

This is part of a series from CBC's Information Morning where Halifax health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton discusses her "health hacks" — ways to make your experience with the health-care system better.

One of the biggest worries for the more than 50,000 Nova Scotians without a family doctor is how to access a specialist when they get sick, but health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton said patients should look no further than the nearest walk-in clinic.

Walk-in clinics have a duty to provide some of the same long-term care as a family practice, including making referrals to specialists, ordering tests and booking follow-up visits, Hampton told CBC's Information Morning.

"It isn't enough for the doctor at the walk-in clinic to say, 'Oh, sorry, this is kind of bigger than the walk-in clinic,'" she said. "A family doctor actually has an obligation to help you resolve the problem that you have come to them with if you don't have a family doctor."

But walk-in clinics don't operate like family practices. They were designed for quick, one-time visits, and patients won't get to develop the kind of relationships they would by seeing the same doctor year after year.

Mary Jane Hampton said physicians need to work together with other health-care professionals to provide the full 'continuum of care.' (Robert Short/CBC)

"I've certainly heard a number of people say that they felt that when they go to a walk-in clinic the providers there have been reluctant to get into complex health issues because that's not really what they are set up to do," she said.

Still, Hampton said doctors at walk-in clinics have an obligation to help people who have nowhere else to turn. Patients can't refer themselves to see a specialist, which means family doctors and nurse practitioners are the only "gateway" to that level of care.

"If you have no family doctor, it is reasonable for you to expect that you would get the same level of care in the walk-in clinic as you would anywhere else. You can't just be ... sent off because you're not a patient of that clinic," she said.

Hampton encourages anyone without a family doctor to take matters into their own hands. Because several doctors typically work at walk-in clinics, patients should ask how referrals will be managed and when an answer is expected.

She also advises patients to follow up about test results.

We need quicker care

The number of Nova Scotians without a family doctor is concerning, but Hampton doesn't think it's actually the metric we should be worried about.

"I think the more important thing to count is the number of people who don't have same day/next day access to primary health care anywhere," she said. "If you do have a family doctor and it takes you six weeks to get in to see them, in my mind that's not reasonable access either."

Hampton said it's time to start figuring out a way for Nova Scotians to get quicker care, regardless of whether they have a family doctor.


With files from CBC's Information Morning