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Rocky Mountain House residents say booking an appointment at the town's only medical clinic has become too difficult, leaving some with no choice but to drive to Sylvan Lake or visit the emergency department for non-urgent medical issues.
Difficulty booking routine medical appointments was the top issue at a online town hall meeting held for Rocky on Tuesday by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA).
"It's never been easy to see your family doctor," said Rosemary Brown, who lives in the town of 6,700 people, 215 kilometres southwest of Edmonton.
"I think the whole business of making appointments has gotten worse over time."
Brown and others who spoke at the meeting say they've been told they can only book appointments during specific windows of time, and that calling on the first of the month is the best way to secure an appointment.
The Rocky Medical Clinic currently has 12 physicians — 11 family doctors and another who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology.
One doctor is leaving at the end of July and another will leave at the end of August, business manager Kristen Penick told CBC News. The clinic hopes to have three physicians join between now and November, she said.
Penick said the clinic currently books appointments for two weeks in advance.
"The 'opening window' for booking the next block of appointments starts every second Wednesday," she said in an emailed statement. "Other than that, there is no specific time window for booking appointments."
In an interview, Rocky resident Becky Heemeryck said the process for booking an appointment "is just bizarre" and as a working mother of two, she feels "it would be really great to just be able to call the clinic and make an appointment and not have to be on hold for 45 minutes."
Heemeryck said trying to call the clinic on certain days to grab an appointment for that month's schedule is "really stressful."
"What if I'm busy at work and I can't call in? There's a real time crunch when it comes to booking."
Brown and Heemeryck both say the medical care their families receive when they see a doctor is fantastic. It's just the process of getting to see a doctor that is the issue.
Hilda Langendoen, who is providing palliative care for her elderly husband, agreed. Speaking during the town-hall meeting, she said, "I have no complaints about the doctors, but you can't get through."
According to CPSA registrar Dr. Scott McLeod, booking practices are not standardized because each medical clinic in Alberta is a distinct operation with its own unique needs.
"There is no standard of exactly how a practice must be provided, and I don't believe there is any such standard like that in any such jurisdiction in Canada," McLeod said.
McLeod and Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti, president of the CPSA council, said the CPSA is helping to address residents' concerns by providing feedback to the Rocky Medical Clinic.
Penick said the clinic would like to receive feedback directly from those it serves, and that the clinic has recently developed a feedback form for residents to use to help improve the clinic's practices.
As a rural community, Rocky Mountain House struggles with physician attraction and retention after physician retirements, something that has made booking appointments more challenging, according to Penick.
"We hope that with the recruitment of seven new physicians this year, that patients will feel comfortable finding a new family doctor and being able to access care closer to home again."