VERNON - One of the founding members of a closing Vernon walk-in clinic says physicians have been bracing for a shortage of family doctors for years.
Rob Sawatzky, former Vernon mayor and a retired family doctor, was one of the physicians who started up the community’s first walk-in clinic in 1991. The Gartree Medical Clinic remained open for 25 years — continuing on after Sawatzky retired and became mayor — but the clinic’s current partners announced last week they are closing down because there is only one doctor left.
Before starting Gartree, Sawatzky ran his own family practice but he, along with his colleagues, saw the need for a walk-in clinic. With more households having two people working full time instead of one, Sawatzky says there was demand for after hours and weekend access to a doctor.
“Walk-in clinics fit the modern lifestyle with people working and everyone on the go,” Sawatzky says.
While the number of doctors at the clinic went up and down over the years, there were usually three full time physicians and four part time, Sawatzky says.
“We were busy,” Sawatzky says. “You’d better be ready to work when you were there.”
After Gartree, two other walk-in clinics eventually opened up; the Vernon Family Doctors Clinic at the Fruit Union Plaza and the North Okanagan Medical Clinic at the Real Canadian Superstore. Last year, the Vernon Family Doctors Clinic closed permanently, and the new Sterling Centre opened up from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekends.
Packed waiting rooms are standard at Vernon's walk-ins, and it’s not uncommon to be out of luck by noon if the clinic has already stopped accepting patients for the day.
Sawatzky says there are a few different factors that contributed to the current situation.
“Those of us who’ve been around as long as I have could see these changes coming down the pipe years ago,” Sawatzky says.
They are changes and challenges not just in Vernon, but around the province. One reason, according to Sawatzky, has to do with curriculum changes at medical school.
“It used to be that everyone had to do a rotating internship, which exposed them to family medicine, and a certain percentage would like it and stay in it,” he says.
Now, students have to commit to a specialty before ever trying out the different areas, and family practice is often not the first choice.
“There is a bias that treats family practice as second class,” Sawatzky says. “You do that, and look what happens.”
Another factor is what Sawatzky calls the ‘chicken coop effect.’
“Med schools are typically in large urban centres. Students will stay there for years, do their speciality training there, and… a percentage will not go to places that are even as attractive as Vernon because they are, quote, ‘too rural.’”
Another trend affecting things is the number of baby boomers hitting their senior years and putting big demands on health care.
“It’s the ‘silver tsunami,’” Sawatzky says. “We are aging, and aging people need more medical care, so you need more doctors.”
From talking to people, Sawatzky says Vernon has a reputation for being a difficult place to get a family doctor.
“I hear people say I am moving here and people told me I’d have a hard time finding a doctor,” he says. “That is certainly the impression I get from people.”
In terms of attracting new residents to the city, Sawatzky says access to doctors definitely comes into the equation.
“We are a very attractive community. We are close to post-secondary education, close to an airport, close to four seasons of recreation and outdoors,” he says. “I think having services like education and health really matter. It’s part of the package you hope you can offer people.”
Having once sat in the mayor’s chair, Sawatzky says there’s not much municipal governments can do to get more doctors, aside from making the community an attractive place to live and hoping physicians give it a chance.
“The broad trends are what senior levels of government need to look at,” he says. “Are you training enough doctors? Are you training enough of the right type?”
The Gartree Medical Clinic closes at the end of March, leaving Vernon with only two walk-in clinics.
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