Nearly 18 months into pandemic, access to P.E.I. walk-in clinics a challenge

·5 min read
Staff at this walk-in clinic said they had the capacity to see only 50 patients Wednesday, and anyone else would have to be turned away.  (Kerry Campbell/CBC - image credit)
Staff at this walk-in clinic said they had the capacity to see only 50 patients Wednesday, and anyone else would have to be turned away. (Kerry Campbell/CBC - image credit)

Nearly 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, access to walk-in clinics on P.E.I. remains curtailed.

In Charlottetown, two privately operated clinics are operating at reduced hours, while a third one shut down after the pandemic began and has yet to reopen.

A lack of walk-in access is creating further challenges for people on Prince Edward Island's patient registry.

As of the last time the website was updated on July 5, the registry contained the names of 18,289 P.E.I. residents in search of a new primary care provider — representing more than one out of every nine Islanders.

Health PEI
Health PEI

In late June of this year, patients who had been on the list since 2014 were still being dealt with.

The clinic at Sherwood Pharmacy was the only walk-in operating in Charlottetown Wednesday. That pharmacy used to operate three clinics a day before the pandemic began.

Now it's down to a single two-hour daily clinic. The problem, according to staff there and at other walk-in clinics, is a lack of doctors available to cover shifts.

At Sherwood Pharmacy, staff said they had the capacity to see only 50 patients Wednesday, and anyone else would have to be turned away.

Another walk-in clinic at the Boardwalk Medical Centre in Charlottetown was closed until Friday because of a lack of physician coverage.

Kerry Campbell/CBC
Kerry Campbell/CBC

Meanwhile, the third walk-in that used to operate in the city, at Murphy's Parkdale Pharmacy, remains closed until further notice, with patients being directed to an evening clinic in Stratford.

Health PEI: No role in running clinics

In a short email statement, a spokesperson for Health PEI said the agency's role "is paying physicians for insurable billing in these clinics. We do not run these walk-in clinics, they are typically run by the pharmacy and we do not have info on the volumes, wait times, etc."

Liberal MLA Robert Henderson called that response an "abdication" by the government of its "responsibility to provide health-care services to this province and the people that require it."

"Let's have government step up to the plate here," Henderson said. "They need to be on top of what's going on on the issues. The minister of health needs to be engaged in what's happening across this province, and start to put a plan in place that can kind of help rectify this."

Legislative Assembly of P.E.I.
Legislative Assembly of P.E.I.

For Islanders on the patient registry, the province has offered free accounts with an online service, Maple, that provides virtual appointments with doctors over the internet. Health PEI provided no numbers Wednesday when asked how many such appointments have taken place.

Patients speak of frustration

CBC News spoke to several patients who were waiting to get into the Sherwood Pharmacy walk-in clinic, though none would agree to an interview.

Some said they had a family doctor but were unable to book an appointment.

One patient said she'd been on the patient registry for the past four years, and had been to walk-in clinics four times in the past two months trying to find the right prescription medication to treat depression.

Patients began lining up more than an hour before the clinic opened, and several voiced frustration with how hard it is to get appropriate medical care.

For anyone who couldn't get into a walk-in clinic and instead went to the emergency department, there was more frustration in store. At noon on Wednesday, a site for patients thinking of going to the emergency department at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown was reporting wait times of 10 hours or more for all but the most urgent cases.

By early afternoon, the reported wait time was down to between four and five hours.

Steve Bruce/CBC
Steve Bruce/CBC

Opposition health critic Michele Beaton said the challenges Islanders currently face obtaining primary care will result in people "not getting the health care they require, and we're going to see the impacts of that."

Beaton said she received a call Wednesday from a senior citizen on the patient registry. "She had a stroke. She's got a care plan but she's got no physician to follow her.

"That's a senior who should not be going to walk-in clinics.… A senior citizen shouldn't be sitting in the emergency room for 10 hours waiting for care."

Beaton said government should be triaging Islanders on the registry to make sure spots with family doctors and nurse practitioners go to those who need them most.

Henderson said attending a walk-in clinic or the ER is "better than nothing," but can't provide the level of care required by many Islanders currently on the patient registry.

"When you have access to a family doctor, that has access to your files, that has the familiarity with your person and your situation, they are more apt to be able to … determine what the problems are, maybe get more to the complexities of the problem," he said.

Henderson said problems with the recruitment and retention of doctors has left P.E.I.'s health-care system "almost at the point of collapse, where it seems like every week we get a tip that we hear there's a physician that's leaving. And it seems that most of those assertions have come true."

One thing that could help, he said, would be expanding the scope of practice for other professionals like pharmacists, allowing them to issue prescriptions for things like birth control.

CBC News asked to speak with Minister of Health Ernie Hudson or someone with Health PEI but no one was made available for an interview.

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