Nova Scotia

More patients being turned away as walk-in clinics see surge in demand

One walk-in clinic manager in HRM says lineups have grown in recent months, with a day's worth of appointment slots filled within 45 minutes of the clinic opening its doors.

Clinics say demand spurred by family doctor retirements, population growth

Walk-in clinics are reporting an increase in demand recently, with patients being turned away because appointments are filled for the day. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Walk-in clinics in Nova Scotia are facing higher demand than usual, leaving many patients scrambling for appointments or missing out entirely.

Julie McGowan, the manager for the walk-in clinics at Scotia Square Medical Clinic, Tacoma Family Medicine Walk-in Clinic, and the Cobequid Medical Clinic, says lineups in recent months have grown.

"Lately, within the past couple of months, you notice a big difference," she said. "We open the doors at 8:45 and sometimes if we're open till four, we're done taking patients at 9:30. You have that many people that are standing in line waiting."

McGowan said on busy days, up to 60 patients are registered within 45 minutes, filling all the available appointments for the day.

She said she believes an increase in retirements of family doctors may be to blame.

"I've noticed quite a few patients will come in and say their doctor is retired or they've closed their practice and moved."

A sign lets potential patients know a walk-in clinic is full for the day. (CBC)

That's the position Tim Dauphinee is in. When his family doctor retired, Dauphinee added himself to the provincial wait-list for a physician. But until his number comes up, he'll need to wait in line at a walk-in when he requires a doctor.

On Monday afternoon, he was waiting for an appointment at the Family Focus Medical Clinic on Spring Garden Road in Halifax. Although he got there just 10 minutes after the clinic opened for the afternoon, he figured he'd be waiting until nearly closing time at 4:30 p.m. for his name to be called.

"If you're not here right at opening, sometimes they fill very quickly, sometimes within the first few minutes," he said. "It's unfortunate. Especially I see some very young children and some elderly. It's a long wait for them, too."

'That's a lot of unhappy people'

Lorraine Burch, the executive director of Our Health Centre walk-in in Chester, N.S., said she's also seeing more demand recently.

"We used to have an answering machine, but we could not keep up with the answering machine," she said. "Now it's same-day booking and you have to be able to get through the phone line, which is … ringing constantly the hour before every shift starts."

Burch said all the appointments available within a four-hour shift — between 15 and 25 — are often booked within 20 minutes.

The clinic tracks not only the number of people it serves, but also the number of people who are not able to get an appointment. There are frequently twice as many people turned away as the number of people who get a slot. Two Saturdays ago, for instance, 28 people couldn't get an appointment. Last Thursday, 39 were turned away.

"So that's a lot of unhappy people," Burch said.

Burch said one factor in the increase in traffic is that people may be feeling more comfortable attending a walk-in now than they did earlier in the pandemic. Another factor is that more people have moved to the area and don't have a doctor yet, she said.

"So when there's a shortage and people are on a waiting list or they can't get in to see their own family doctor, it just bogs the whole system down.… The whole system is struggling right now to take care of the people it needs to take care of. So we're a part of that."

Doctor recruitment for walk-ins difficult

At the Regency Park walk-in clinic in Clayton Park, appointments are booked by phone and there is generally a one- to two-day wait for a slot.

Clinic director Shellene Becket said there's been an increase in demand over the past year or so. A key factor is the difficulty in recruiting physicians to work walk-in shifts, as the province pays doctors less for their work in walk-in clinics than they do in family practice or hospitals, Becket said.

"If they're not getting the same, even the same rate they would get in family practice, they're actually [disincentivized] as well.… So, I mean, could that be part of it? Yes."

Family physician wait-list at record high

The wait-list for a family physician in Nova Scotia currently has 94,855 names on it — a record high. That figure represents about 9.5 per cent of Nova Scotia's population, but it's likely an underrepresentation since some people may not have been registered on the list.

Some people on that wait-list have the option of getting care virtually through VirtualCareNS. Those in the western and northern health zones have had access to the free service since January, and the program will be fully available to everyone on the wait-list in the central and eastern zones by the end of the summer.

About 73 per cent of people on the wait-list for a family physician have access to VirtualCareNS, and as of May 27, 15,163 virtual visits had taken place.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca

With a file from Michael Gorman

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