This clinic announced it's accepting patients. Now its phones won't stop ringing

Dr. Anees Khan, left, stands next to office administrator Debbie Walsh at the Southbank Medical Clinic.  (Joseph Tunney/CBC - image credit)
Dr. Anees Khan, left, stands next to office administrator Debbie Walsh at the Southbank Medical Clinic. (Joseph Tunney/CBC - image credit)

When people in need of a doctor show up at the Southbank Medical Centre, they're asked to fill out a new patient form and given a stark breakdown of their chances.

"We've been getting phone calls, like thousands of phone calls a day," one nurse told two men waiting outside the south Ottawa clinic Tuesday evening, before wishing them luck with their applications.

"I can't tell you a day that they're going to be able to give you a call," she continued. "It may take a week. It may take a couple of weeks, and it may take a couple of months."

The centre and walk-in clinic — no stranger to long lines — has been absolutely swamped by visitors after a sign about a new doctor was photographed and posted online and soon spread like wildfire.

The clinic has found itself on the frontline of the city's family physician shortage, with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) giving an update on the situation at Monday night's Ottawa Board of Health meeting.

According to the update from Dr. Vera Etches, roughly one in 10 residents didn't have a family doctor as of March 2020. A similar estimate from national surveys the number of residents without access to regular primary care may now be as high as 150,000.

That need is only increased by recent immigrants, who especially struggle to find primary care. According to Etches' update, Ottawa is "currently failing" newcomers in this regard.

Joseph Tunney/CBC
Joseph Tunney/CBC

'The phones were ringing like crazy'

While Dr. Paule Davilmar — who recently moved to Gatineau, Que., from New Brunswick — doesn't open her family practice until Feb. 21, the crowds began to form at Southbank Medical on Friday, soon after the sign was posted in the waiting and patient exam rooms.

A line of about 50 people had wrapped around the building before the centre opened Monday morning.

Office administrator Debbie Walsh, who didn't know they'd announced Davilmar's arrival when she came to work that day, said in 18 years working there she'd never seen demand that high.

"The phones were ringing like crazy," she said. "The emails were coming in. And I was like, what is happening?"

It's so sad that these patients are without doctors. - Office administrator Debbie Walsh

By the end of day, clinic staff had handed out 450 new patient forms.

When an overwhelmed Walsh told people to email them instead, her inbox was stuffed with 1,500 messages. While Tuesday was calmer, the phones continued to ring, Walsh said, and by that evening roughly 3,000 people had tried contacting them one way or another since Sunday.

Walsh said she's even snuck through the rear entrance in recent days, hoping to not get swarmed as soon as she walks in the door.

"It's so sad that these patients are without doctors," she said.

Joseph Tunney/CBC
Joseph Tunney/CBC

CBC has so far been unable to line up an interview with Davilmar. But Dr. Anees Khan, one of the part-owners, said it's up to her to decide how many new patients she's comfortable taking.

While another of their doctors is also topping up their list of patients, the centre cannot take on everyone, Khan said — even if it's in "perpetual recruitment mode." 

"Because this is a mission," the physician said. "It's not a business. It's a mission."

They even tried bringing doctors from the United Kingdom a few years ago, Khan said, although they didn't like Canada's health-care system or climate and left.

Khan said the work at Southbank Medical is done with a passion and love of Ottawa, and he ensures all new doctors are aware of that.

He said Ontario's Ministry of Health should subsidize rent or even the salaries at small operations like his, and that one way to alleviate stress is to recruit more foreign-trained physicians whose credentials can be verified.

"I think that is doable," he said. "All that it needs is intention and grit ... so that patients are not held at ransom."

Joseph Tunney/CBC
Joseph Tunney/CBC

'Keeping my fingers crossed'

Outside the centre's front doors, would-be patients like Vasu Upadhya are told there's no guarantee he can land a doctor, even after driving in from Kanata.

His doctor announced she's retiring following a maternity leave, and Upadhya has already been calling family physicians at local hospitals and opening applications as far away as Smiths Falls, Perth and Arnprior.

Filling out the new patient form, he left the parking lot frustrated — but with few other options.

"I tried my best," Upadhya said. "So keeping my fingers crossed, and hopefully, I get to hear back from them."