The Current

She found out she had cancer from a stranger on the phone. She just wants a family doctor

Tanya Sunshine had to go to urgent care when she found a lump on her breast because she doesn't have a family doctor. She told her story at a public forum on health care, hosted by The Current.

Doctors and patients share ideas about solving Canada's health-care crisis

A woman looks at the camera, smiling.
Tanya Sunshine hopes Tuesday's meeting between federal, provincial and territorial leaders on health care will result in more collaboration that can fix the shortage of family doctors. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

When Tanya Sunshine found a lump in her breast last spring, she lined up for five hours at an urgent care clinic in Langford, B.C., to see a doctor. 

The doctor examined her and sent her for tests. When the results came back, Sunshine was told she had breast cancer over the phone, by a different doctor she hadn't met.

"The doctor felt horrible, she was almost crying with me — and I was alone," Sunshine told Matt Galloway at a public forum on health care, hosted by The Current in Victoria, B.C. on Monday. 

"But then I did get another call the next day from a different doctor at the same place, and he didn't even know why he was calling me," she said.

Sunshine asked if the doctor was calling with more test results, which jogged his memory.

"Then he just said, 'This is bad. This is very, very bad. And you have a long road ahead of you,'" she said.

It's dire that the doctors had to be put in that position, that I wasn't with a family doctor- Tanya Sunshine

Sunshine is one of the millions of Canadians who don't have access to a family doctor, meaning they rely on already-stretched urgent care clinics and emergency room departments. But she doesn't blame the doctors who called with her diagnosis.

"It's dire that the doctors had to be put in that position, that I wasn't with a family doctor who could bring me into the office and say, 'Bring somebody with you, so that you're taken care of,'" she said.

"It's horrible for everybody on both sides, all around."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is meeting with provincial and territorial leaders on Tuesday, to discuss solutions to the strain on Canada's health-care system. The federal government is proposing $196.1 billion in health-care spending over the next decade, including $46.2 billion of new spending. The proposal targets four priority areas: family health services, health workers and backlogs, mental health and substance use and a "modernized health system."

At the public forum, The Current asked people why primary care was important to them — and what they want to see happen to solve the wider problems.

WATCH | Trudeau speaks ahead of health-care meeting with provincial, territorial leaders: 

Trudeau says health care is not 'delivering at the level that Canadians would expect'

1 month ago
Duration 0:27
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discusses health care ahead of meeting with premiers.

Sunshine received treatment and is now cancer free, but her oncologist is keeping her on as a patient — strictly for cancer-related care — because Sunshine doesn't have a family doctor.

She hopes that the federal-provincial meeting will result in more collaboration that can fix the shortage.

"I'd love a family doctor to take care of me when I leave the cancer agency, and I'd love for everybody to have a family doctor," she said.

"I have two kids, we're a family … so it would be great to know that myself and my family would be covered and looked after in times of need."

'Every Canadian deserves to have a family doctor'

Canada currently has a two-tier health-care system — people with a family doctor, and people without — said Dr. Jennifer Lush, who has been working in family practice in Victoria for 21 years. 

"It is not fair for Tanya to receive news from a stranger over the phone when it could have been delivered in the context of a caring relationship with somebody who knew her, who knew her background, who knew all her other medical issues," said Lush.

"Every Canadian deserves to have a family doctor."

She said the reasons behind the shortage are complex, but pointed out that income has not kept up with the rising costs of running a practice, and increased paperwork is distracting doctors from direct patient care. Medical schools nudge students toward becoming specialists, and away from becoming family physicians, she said. 

A woman looks at the camera, smiling
'Health care is not a political issue, it is a human right,' said Dr. Jennifer Lush. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

She wants to see "a non-partisan solution," because "health care is not a political issue, it is a human right."

"It's time to set aside political differences and get down to brass tacks of coming up with efficient, sensible solutions to the health-care crisis," she said.

"It has to be fixed because every single Canadian — politician, doctor, patient alike — we all need health care sooner or later."

More funding, more transparency

The lack of primary care has turned the emergency room into a default destination for people who need help, said Dr. Omar Ahmad, department head of emergency and critical care for Island Health in Victoria.

That's led to an "untenable" situation for patients who face long wait times, but also for staff, he said.

"Our nurses are burnt out, our physicians are burnt out … it's tough and we just can't close our doors," he said.

A man looks at the camera, smiling.
Emergency room physician Dr. Omar Ahmad said the pressure on emergency departments have become 'untenable.' (Amanda Grant/CBC)

He thinks the system needs more funding to increase capacity.

"It'd be great to see that money come in, increasing our infrastructure so we have more places to see our patients, in particular … in the emergency departments, so we have more room, more staffing," he said.

If funding is part of the solution, activist Camille Currie wants to know how that money is spent. 

"I want to know that there's going to be measures in place to see where is the money going, how is it being spent and is it achieving end results for the end users?" she said.

WATCH | 80-year-old Ont. physician says he can't retire because of doctor shortages: 

80-year-old Ont. physician says he can't retire because of doctor shortages

1 month ago
Duration 4:59
Rosemary Barton Live speaks with 80-year-old family physician Dr. Peter Bell, who says he is unable to retire from his Sharbot Lake, Ont., practice — which sees about 3,000 patients — because of primary care doctor shortages across the province.

Currie's family doctor left the province a year ago. She decided she couldn't just sit by doing nothing, and became a patient activist to help hers and other families who were losing access. 

The fight is a personal one for her. One of her children had a stroke in the womb, and it was only through the "amazing co-ordination of care" that doctors were able to identify a gene mutation that had caused it, and provide treatment to try to stop it happening again. 

She wants other families across Canada to know they have a voice in the chorus calling for better health care — and that they can stand together for the same end goal.

"Anybody out there that is struggling, I want them to know that they can advocate, anybody can advocate," she said.

"Every single voice can have an impact. Every single story can have an impact."

A woman looks at the camera, smiling.
Patient advocate Camille Currie said that every Canadian can have a role to play in securing better health care for all. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

With files from Amanda Grant. Audio produced by Alison Masemann, Amanda Grant and Ben Jamieson.

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