By Jodi A. Shaw
I just wanted to go to the doctor.
Alberta has been suffering from a physician shortage for several years, but it’s become especially keen lately. With Calgary’s population just over 1,070,000 and growing, an estimated 200,000 Calgarians are currently without a family doctor. It’s a complex issue – fewer doctors are going into family practice and foreign doctors have been shut out for a variety of reasons (that’s a whole separate issue), while the constantly expanding population has placed extraordinary stress on established physicians.
I’ve lived in Lethbrige, Nanaimo, and Victoria and had a doctor in all three cities. In Victoria I simply called a clinic and asked if any doctor was taking new patients and, ta da, I had a doctor.
Not so with my first attempt to acquire a Calgary doctor – which consisted of an afternoon spent getting cozy with the yellow pages, racking up a major cellphone bill, and speaking with staff members who were too busy to answer my questions. Eventually I was referred to the Health Link website.
Managed by Alberta Health Services, Health Link provides a list of doctors taking new patients, plus 1-800 access to nurses who can provide medical information and advice on minor health issues. I checked it out, only to find my chances of securing a female doctor anywhere near my home were slim-to-none. There is currently one female doctor in my area, sort of, who is taking new patients – but “neck and back pain only.” And the other female doctors are maternity specialists. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so picky, but I think we all have a right to be selective when it comes to allowing someone access to our bodies.
Instead of despairing, I decided to accept the reality of the situation and learn to deal. I began to trek down to my friendly neighbourhood medical clinic as necessary . . . and bring a book, of course. Typically the wait is two or three hours, but, given how much I love to read in cramped spaces surrounded by sick people, there’s no problem. Twice I have insisted on seeing a female doctor and taken my chances that I’ll get in to see her before the shift changes and a male doctor takes her place. Twice I have waited all afternoon and then gone home when the male doctor arrived.
But as I say, I accepted the situation. Rather than get upset or rant at the clinic staff (there’s a sign . . . no abuse, raised voices, or profanity may be used toward clinic staff . . . that’ll get you barred), I simply gave up and planned to return the next afternoon. The alternative would be to drive all over the city from walk-in to walk-in, which I’ve heard many people do, but I prefer sitting for a few hours in the clinic waiting room to spending those same few hours in the cockpit of my car.
My last visit to the doctor, however, may have marked the end of my role as the patient patient. There was nothing majorly wrong with me . . . I had an inkling that I might have tendonitis (which would render me unable to work), had some unresolved issues with my ability to breathe properly at night, and had two smaller, more private issues, all of which I planned to address with the attending physician, male or female.
A nurse came into the examination room and asked me what I was seeing the doctor for that day. I explained that I had a number of issues to address. Instead of writing said issues down on my chart and leaving the room, the nurse informed me, “The doctor does not have that kind of time. He can deal with your most pressing concern.”
I’m not known for being a pushover, and so I replied, “All my concerns are pressing.”
Not amused, the nurse reminded me that the doctor did not have time to deal with a laundry list of problems and I would have to pick one for him to examine.
“I just sat in the waiting room for three and a half hours,” I said. “I don’t have time for that.”
She did not budge.
Despite my desire to demand compensation for my prolonged wait (compensation being 15 uninterrupted minutes of the doctor’s undivided attention to deal with what I wanted to deal with), I decided to focus on the tendonitis, as it was causing me the most pain, and hope the remaining issues would rectify themselves in time. (They haven’t.) After three or four minutes with the doctor (or was it two?), he assured me I did not have tendonitis and that I was a smidge paranoid. Probably just overexerted myself. Take some ibuprofen. Everything will be fine.
And away he went. So much for that.
For the sake of curiosity, I called the 1-800 number provided on Health Link. I was connected with a nurse who addressed my concerns – all of them. I appreciated the time she took to listen to me describe my symptoms. She asked me questions and explained in moderate detail how the knee joint works, how the nasal passage functions, and so on. Finally, I was getting somewhere.
And then she delivered her advice. It was simple, yet problematic: in regard to all four of my health concerns, she suggested I go see a doctor.
I’ll go see a doctor, all right. But given the mood Alberta’s sickly health care system has left me in, I’m not so sure that doctor will be happy to see me.