Family doctors in Alberta want to help give COVID-19 vaccinations but say the province has yet to tap them for help.
"Family doctors have largely been left out of the conversation about the distribution and administration of vaccines in the province," said Dr. James Makokis, a family physician with practices in Edmonton, Kehewin Cree Nation who also works with an addictions and mental health practice in Toronto.
Makokis said family doctors are in a good position to help because they know which patients meet the criteria for vaccinations and could help identify them. He said family doctors have their patients' trust and can answer questions they might have about the vaccine.
While there are challenges that would make it difficult to store the vaccines in most family clinics, he said, many of the other roughly 5,200 family doctors in the province would be willing to attend AHS vaccination sites to help with injections.
"If there was opportunity for, you know, late night shifts or weekend shifts when people can be vaccinated, many physicians would make themselves available to meet the needs of that," he said.
Makokis said the province needs to engage with doctors, and wonders if the series of recent clashes between the provincial government and physicians has become a barrier.
"My sense is their ego has gotten in the way to reach out for help," he said.
Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said family doctors have yet to be tapped simply because of limited supply of the vaccine, and the province recognizes the important role doctors and others could play when there is more vaccine to go around.
On Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney said Alberta was on track to use up its current supply by the end of that day or early Wednesday.
"Right now, we have a very limited amount of vaccine available," McMillan said in a statement. "This is why we are currently focusing on the priority groups in Phase 1, which can most effectively be immunized directly through AHS personnel. As the available supply of vaccines increases, we will expand our approach."
He said the province will continue to work with pharmacists, physicians and other health professionals on options for rolling out vaccines on a broader scale, and an update will be provided to the public in the coming weeks — including information about how different providers will be compensated for giving vaccine.
Dr. Craig Hodgson, the family medicine section president of the Alberta Medical Association, said discussions have been held over the course of the pandemic about different ways family doctors could be involved in the vaccine rollout, but so far there hasn't been much interest.
"Largely, we … certainly haven't received much in the way of a response in terms of wanting us to be involved," Hodgson said.
In his own practice in Whitecourt, he said, patients have asked questions about the vaccine, and the relationship people have with family practitioners can be a way to address hesitancy concerns.
Dr. Vishal Bhela, president of the Alberta College of Family Physicians, said the college has also been involved in a number of conversations, and while they recognize the issues of limited supply and ensuring that specific high-risk groups get shots first, they still hope to see family doctors looped in as the program expands.
"We're hopeful that there will be a recommendation about the important role that family physicians can play in a successful COVID-19 campaign," he said.
"Patients trust us, they have long-standing relationships with us, they approach us with questions and already have been," he said.