Closure of B.C. walk-in clinics spurs petition for more family doctors

With the provincial election little more than a month away, the Walk-in Clinics of B.C. Association has started a petition calling on the government to make recruiting family doctors a priority. 

Mike McLoughlin, founding director of the association, is hoping to make the lack of primary care options an election issue. He told CBC's host of The Early Edition Rick Cluff that although there are more doctors registered in B.C. than ever before, the supply is not keeping up with demand.

"The existing physician pool is overwhelmed by the patient demand," McLoughlin said. "Our population is aging, there is more complex care and there is more chronic disease."

The number of doctors is steadily rising and, according to the College of Physicians and Surgeons, there are now almost 12,000 physicians, including general practitioners and specialists, working across the province. The Ministry of Health said since 2011, the number of family physicians has grown faster than B.C.'s general population. 

"We also know that physician practice is changing," said Lori Cascaden, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health. "Many are working shorter hours, opting for work in walk-in clinics and emergency departments — all of this amounting to increasing challenges in access to primary care."

Clinics shutting down

Although the number of doctors is on the increase, walk-in clinics are disappearing. McLoughlin says that in the last five years, 45 clinics have shut down.

Just last week, the Seafair Medical Centre, a walk-in clinic in Richmond, closed its doors after a quarter of a century in business due to a shortage of doctors, a sign on the window explained. 

"I do expect to see more clinics closing because it is very difficult for them to find physicians to work the schedule," McLoughlin said.

Part of the issue, he said, is the daily limits that cap the number of patients a doctor can attend to each day. Doctors get paid for each of the first 50 patients, McLoughlin explained, and only get half the billing for the next 15 patients. After 65 patients, they don't get paid at all.

"Working as a hospitalist is better than working at a clinic," McLoughlin said, citing the higher income, no business overhead and benefits.

McLoughlin hopes the association's petition will draw attention to the shortage of family doctors across the province as the election draws closer.  

"We'd like to see more training, more recruiting and better compensation for family doctors so that they are retained to the province." 

The Ministry of Health said they have invested in incentives to attract physicians to practice in B.C. communities, including recruiting more foreign-trained doctors and increasing the number of undergraduate medical school seats. 

With files from The Early Edition. 

To hear the audio, click the upper left-hand link: Walk-in clinics petition for more family doctors