North Hatley residents raise concerns over lack of family doctors in the region

North Hatley, Que. resident Raymond Finnigan has been without a family doctor for more than a year-and-a-half, and likely has at least another year-and-a-half more to wait.

The 64-year-old lost his doctor in Montreal when he moved to the Eastern Townships, and although he was able to see a new general practitioner for a while, she retired, forcing Finnigan to go back on the waiting list.

Despite a medical crisis that should have moved him up that list — because it's ordered by priority — Finnigan says he has more than 500 days to wait. He's not alone.

"My treatment has been very good here — I don't complain at all about the treatment I've had — but to me the most frustrating thing is if I need treatment now, I have to go through an emergency room, so there is the wait time, and also it's a tremendous drain on the system," Finnigan said.

Spencer Van Dyk/CBC

To help answer questions from the community and equip people with tools to better navigate the healthcare system in Quebec, the Age-Friendly Municipality Committee (MADA) in North Hatley hosted about 50 seniors for a Tea and Talk event.

For many, like Finnigan, the prevailing issue was lack of access to a family doctor.

About 14 per cent of people in the Eastern Townships do not have a general practitioner, said Jonathan Keays from the regional health authority, the CIUSSS de l'Estrie-CHUS.

He also said several of the family doctors who serve the region are close to retirement.

"We think it's an important topic and that was obvious by the questions," said Heather Bowman, a retired nurse and member of MADA. "People are concerned about their access to medical care, so this seemed a good way to help people get more information, to understand what they need to do."

Bowman said she did not know people need to register to be on the list for a family doctor, despite having worked as a healthcare professional and mostly understanding how the system works.

"I think it was a fantastic meeting, and hopefully we really did help some people understand more," she said.

Keays said the situation has improved in the Eastern Townships in the last decade.

"We are sure that the number [of people with a family doctor] will continue to grow," he said. "Slowly, but it will continue to grow in the next years."

He spoke at the meeting about interim alternatives to a general practitioner, like calling Info-Santé, a resource he believes will become increasingly popular and helpful.

But several people at the event said they'd experienced long wait times with the phone service, like a woman who thought she may be having a heart attack and was kept on hold for more than 20 minutes.

For people like Finnigan, who have been struggling to get a family doctor, getting regular prescriptions renewed can also be a challenge.

After several early-morning visits to a local clinic, only to be told the schedule was already full for the day, Finnigan paid a fee online to find a nearby doctor. He was given a spot in Candiac, Que., more than an hour away from North Hatley.

"That was probably the most frustrating thing up to now, because I tried getting an appointment at a CLSC or a clinic, and I went on the internet to find how to do that, and I could never find one myself, even when I went in at 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning they were always booked," he said.

Finnigan said he is frustrated by the system, but is lucky he's not in a crisis situation, unlike others at the Tea and Talk event who are older and have chronic ailments.

"I'm just worried that some of these people will fall through the cracks and they will not get the treatment they absolutely need in an expeditious fashion," said Finnigan. "There could be some critical results to that, and that's what scares me the most."

He said that he found the meeting "very beneficial."

Spencer Van Dyk/CBC

Staffing problems at regional health authority

Job assignments are decided by the CIUSSS de l'Estrie-CHUS, which is planning a hiring fair in the hopes of filling about 1,000 mostly administrative jobs.

CIUSSS spokesperson Félix Massé wrote in an email to the CBC News that the organization is not planning on recruiting doctors during its upcoming hiring blitz.

He said the health authority goes through a process to figure out how many doctors it can hire, which it'll do in the spring for hiring in 2021.

Massé said there is no word on how many doctors could go to North Hatley once they are hired.