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Initiative seeks cure to Chilliwack doctor shortage

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Jenn Billingham of Chilliwack doesn't have a family doctor, yet she's concerned about a lump under her armpit.

It's likely nothing, something benign, like a swollen lymph node, but without a GP her choice is to go to emergency at Chilliwack General Hospital (CGH) or find a walk-in clinic.

"[I] wanna be sure," Billingham said on a Facebook thread where the Times asked about family doctors in Chilliwack. "Sure would just be nice to go to a family [doctor] and make an [appointment,] instead of having my [girlfriend] watch [my] kids for me while I sit and see a [doctor] who I don't even know!" Billingham is not alone in her frustration trying to track down a family doctor in Chilliwack.

"I need a family doctor since moving here I haven't been able to find one," Emilio de Angelis said.

Erik Hunter Nachtigahl said he hasn't had a family doctor for close to two years since his retired "and we can't find another."

Colleen Marchuk compared finding a GP to looking for work.

"When I got my family doctor here, seven years ago, it was like applying for a job!" she said.

And while doctor shortages are nothing new locally or across British Columbia, 93 per cent of respondents to a recent survey said they were "attached" to a family physician.

A high number to be sure, especially considering some portion of that seven per cent without a family doctor don't want one.

The surveys were conducted by the Chilliwack Division of Family Practice as part of the A GP for Me initiative, a push to get everyone a family doctor and to improve the doctor-patient relationships that do exist.

"Most of the family doctors currently practising in Chilliwack are at capacity," said Dr. Melanie Madill, physician lead for A GP for Me, "which is why recruitment and changing the way we do things is a strategy that is going to be vital so that we can improve access and make it timely and meaningful."

Madill was speaking at a Chilliwack press conference last Friday aimed to announce the preliminary results from the A GP for Me survey.

Of the 3,059 survey respondents in Chilliwack, Agassiz, Harrison Hot Springs, Hope and Boston Bar, 93 per cent said they had a family physician and 98 per cent said having one was important.

"That means that five per cent difference are wanting a family physician but are unable to find one," A GP for Me project manager Katrina Bepple said.

But another problem among the 93 per cent who have a GP is getting an appointment, something that isn't always easy.

"We do need to be working on how those patients access healthcare in a way that they see is timely and efficient," Bepple said.

In the survey, 27 per cent of respondents said for an urgent matter they could get in to see their doctor the same day; 24 per cent said the next day; and 35 per cent reported longer than two days.

For non-urgent care, 55 per cent reported being able to get an appointment within a week.

The top barriers to patients seeing a GP, according to survey results, was 59 per cent who said they couldn't get an appointment when they wanted.

So what are people doing? Attending CGH emergency or a walk-in clinic, which is increasingly difficult to do since the Doctors' Satellite Medical Clinic on Promontory Road closed on Nov. 1. When asked where unattached Chilliwack residents should go if they don't have a family doctor, Dr. Madill said the first call should be to the Chilliwack Primary Care Clinic at CGH. This clinic is staffed by two "incredibly hardworking" nurse practitioners with physician support, according to Madill.

"Right now if you phone our Primary Care Clinic you are not going to get an appointment until May, so obviously that is not enough of an answer."

Madill said they have recruited two physicians to come to the area to replace two who have retired recently. She could make no concrete promises about adding hours to the Primary Care Clinic or some sort of walk-in facility, but she said it was "safe to say we are actively engaged in ensuring that outof-business hours access is avaliable for non-emergency care."

Drop-in times for the Primary Care Clinic at CGH are Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to noon and 1 to 2 p.m., or by appointment 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday.

The A GP for Me survey results are just being analyzed closely this week, and more information will be available at a community forum scheduled for Feb. 26 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Squiala Community Centre where food will be provided and the public is welcome to attend.

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