Don’t undervalue the importance of family medicine

Wanted: Family doctor. Preferably young, healthy, and knowledgeable. Warm and friendly are assets. Clock watchers, and those with the last name House need not apply.

It’s come to this, a want ad. I’ve asked friends and professionals, I’ve tweeted, I’ve Facebooked, I’ve even cold-called – in two different cities – and I keep coming up with nothing. This is my final outlet.

When my doctor was forced to retire four months ago due to illness, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to replace him. Sure I’d heard all the reports of doctor droughts in communities throughout B.C., but I’ve never been in this situation before and I never thought I would be.

For 32 years, from the time I was a one year old to present, I have been going to the same family practice. And while that practice had been sold a few times over the years, I was never once required to seek out a new physician, a new one was always appointed to me – until now.

In 1994 more than 50 per cent of medical graduates in Canada went into family medicine, now just 30 per cent are going into it.

Last year, the University of British Columbia, the only medical university in B.C., had 288 students. Of those, 30 per cent went into family medicine. That’s 86.4 doctors being distributed throughout B.C. for a total population of approximately 4.5 million people.

No wonder I don’t have a doctor.

But the thing is, I need a doctor. For 24 years I’ve had Type 1 diabetes, and as much as I’ve wished, hoped, prayed for it to vanish in the night, I’ve since come to the realization it’s not going away. While I am in great control, so good my diabetic specialist has repeatedly told me my blood glucose numbers are numbers to grow old with, you never know with this disease. And I am not willing to take any chances without having a family physician.

You may think a general practitioner can’t help me, that they’re at the lowest level of medicine for this disease, but I’ll tell you you’re wrong.

My family doctor has always been my first line of defense when it comes to this disease. Always.

He was the one who diagnosed me with diabetes after just two minutes of listening to my mom tell him my symptoms, and he was the one who regularly checked on me when I was imprisoned in hospitals over the years, and when he felt he couldn’t help, he was the one who sent me to a variety of specialists.

Dr. Jim Thorsteinson, executive director of the BC College of Family Physicians, said GPs have long been under-valued despite their benefits to society.

“It really pays to have an individual family physician working with a patient,” said Thorsteinson. “The longer term relationship of a doctor working with a patient and supporting their care and knowing them, that continuity translates into significantly less hospitalization. Family physicians are a value to the individuals obviously, but also to the overall healthcare system and our province’s well-being.”

And yet, there’s a stigma attached to family medicine, said Thorsteinson, who himself was encouraged by his peers and medical professionals not to go into the field because he was “too smart” for it.

“There are certainly those who look down on doctors going into family medicine because they think it’s too easy,” said Thorsteinson. “There’s also some who think it’s too hard because of the added workload.”

But there is hope.

Last year the B.C. government committed to every B.C. resident having a family doctor by the year 2015, which is all well and good, but what’s a Type 1 like me, who is in immediate need of a doctor, to do until then?

At this point, the grumbly sarcasm of Dr. Gregory House is starting to sound pretty darn perfect.

 

Katie Bartel is a reporter with the Chilliwack Progress. Reach her at kbartel@theprogress.com

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