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Family doctor shortage: Can telemedicine bridge the gap?

August 9, 2022 • read

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Family doctor shortage: Can telemedicine bridge the gap?

Having a family doctor is more than just access to a doctor for your yearly check-up. They provide lifelong care, helping you to manage health conditions, and prevent others from developing. A family doctor is also the healthcare provider who can refer you to a specialist if you need specialized care.

There’s a family doctor shortage across Canada that’s alarming, and all signs point to it getting worse in the future. And since seeing one is so important for medical conditions as well as preventative care, this could have long-term effects on the health care system. Here’s what you need to know about the family doctor shortage across Canada.

Is there a shortage in Canada?

It turns out there is, and there are a few reasons why. You’ve probably heard about this one a lot over the last few years — healthcare providers are physically burnt out, even more so since the start of the pandemic.

Since 2021, 53% of doctors and medical learners (including medical students, clinical staff, and residents) said they had experienced high levels of burnout. While this number is up from a few years ago, 30% of doctors were still dealing with burnout back in 2017. This has a domino effect on patients, as 46% of doctors said they plan on reducing their clinical work over the next two years.

Mental health is an issue as well, with 59% of doctors saying their mental health worsened throughout the pandemic. This, paired with the need to see a certain amount of patients per hour to cover overhead costs at their practice, after-hours administrative work, and poor work-life balance is contributing to the shortage of family doctors across the country.

Knowing this, graduates from medical school are turning away from family medicine and leaning towards specialty medicine or working in hospitals.

We’re also seeing that family doctors who have been practicing for years are now retiring, or are choosing to retire early. Without younger doctors taking their place, this leads to a shortage of practicing family doctors and clogged walk-in clinics and hospital waiting rooms.

In Nova Scotia specifically, residents in 2019 said the main reason they didn’t have a family doctor was that theirs had retired or left the province. In an effort to help those in Nova Scotia get care, Maple has partnered with the Nova Scotia Health Authority to provide care for those on the Need a Family Practice Registry through VirtualCare NS. Nova Scotians with a valid health card can make same-day appointments with Nova Scotia-based doctors or nurse practitioners through the Maple platform.

So, just how many people in Canada don’t have a family doctor? As of 2019, 14.5% of Canadians aged 12 or older — that’s roughly 4.6 million people — said they don’t have a regular health care provider when they need care. And, more males (17.4%) than females (11.7%) are without a family doctor.

As for provinces that struggle the most with this shortage, Quebec has the most residents without a family doctor, at 21.5%. Saskatchewan came in second with 17.2%, and British Columbia trailed just behind with 17.7%.

Even if you do have a family doctor, wait times are still an issue. Only 38.7% of Canadians reported being able to receive a same-day or next-day appointment. This means that many people are going without immediate care. Depending on the medical issue, this could be dangerous and ultimately, expensive for the health care system.

Wait times to see a specialist in Canada

Seeing a specialist is a process in itself. To see a specialist, you have to get a referral from a general practitioner. They’ll need to approve and write the referral, and then you’ll wait for an appointment with a specialist, which will likely only take place months down the line.

For specialties, the average wait time to see a doctor in Canada is 11 weeks — this includes urgent referrals. However, one in four patients reported having to wait 25 weeks or longer for their specialist appointment, and one in 10 referred patients had no record at all of seeing a specialist within one year.

As well, one-fifth of Canadians reported being negatively affected by wait times to see a specialist. They’ve cited stress, anxiety, pain, and even lost income as a result of waiting so long to see a doctor.

Hospitals are an option for urgent specialist care, but getting to one may be an issue, especially for those in rural communities. It’s quite obvious that Canadians are waiting too long to receive specialty care, and it’s taking a toll on their mental and physical health.

Wait times at walk-in clinics and hospitals in Canada

Walk-in clinics are another option for people who don’t have a family doctor, or for those who have one but need immediate care and don’t want to go to the ER.

However, wait times at walk-in clinics vary depending on where you go, the physicians available that day, and who’s ahead of you. It could take as long as an hour or two just to see a doctor. And, walk-in clinics typically aren’t open 24 hours — neither are urgent care centres.

For medical care at all hours, you’ll need to go to the hospital, and you could be there all night. Hospital wait times differ, but between 2018 to 2019, the average wait time for patients nationwide was around three to four hours. As hard as this is for patients, it’s also tough on the medical staff who are trying to look after everyone in a timely manner — burnout is not uncommon.

Hospital emergency rooms across Ontario specifically have grappled with shutting down recently. Some have been able to stay open thanks to volunteers filling shifts, while others haven’t been that lucky. The reasons? A higher volume of patients, more severe patient illnesses, staff illnesses, and more. Increased demand continues in the healthcare system due to the pandemic — Clinton Public Hospital, for example, has dealt with closing its emergency department temporarily and reducing hours of operation.

Maple stepped in to help out Grey Bruce Health Services after the threat of temporary ER closures. Through Maple, residents in Grey and Bruce counties in Southwestern Ontario have access to on-demand care throughout the week if they’re unable to reach their family doctor for an urgent appointment.

What are the benefits of telemedicine and online doctors?

Telemedicine in Canada opens doors for those who don’t have a family doctor, and even for those who do. With significantly shorter wait times to see an online doctor and the same level of care you’d get in-person, it provides patients with excellent care and access to timely appointments.

More patients can also be seen each day, which helps ease the burden on the health care system and makes it easier for all Canadians to get care. Telemedicine also cuts down on the time it takes just to get to the doctor’s office. After all, not everyone lives close to their doctor or has a means of transportation.

Maple specifically is the only 24/7 virtual health care app in Canada. This means that patients can speak to doctors anywhere, any time of day.

What is Maple and how does it help Canadians?

Maple offers access to Canadian-licensed doctors online, no matter the time or where you are. With Canada’s largest online network of doctors, nurse practitioners, and allied healthcare providers, you can rest assured that someone is always available to provide an online diagnosis, medical advice, prescriptions, lab requisitions, and more.

As for waiting months to see a specialist? Maple shortens that time significantly too. You can make an appointment to see a specialist online at a time that’s convenient for you, from the comfort of your home. And, no referral is necessary. This also eliminates the need to see a general practitioner first.

The ripple effect of the family doctor shortage in Canada is a scary thought, even for those with a family doctor. A strained health care system leads to illnesses that might have been preventable or treatable, fewer hospital beds, packed long-term care homes, and more.

Maple continues to make family doctor visits more accessible for Canadians, allowing them to see one whenever they need it. From general practitioner visits to specialist appointments with dermatologists, endocrinologists, mental health specialists, and much more, you can get care online from anywhere. So put your worries at ease if you can’t find a family doctor — we’ve got you covered any time of day.


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