The Bull Meter: Jack Layton on access to family doctors

How many Canadians “can’t find” a physician?


[mac_quote person=”Jack Layton” date=”April 1, 2011″]Across the country, five million Canadians can’t find a family doctor.[/mac_quote]
[mac_bull score=”3″]

This figure has been thrown around for years. As far back as 2006, a Decima research poll commissioned by the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC) found five million Canadians—or 17 per cent—did not have a family doctor. More recently, in 2009, a survey by the same pollster found a more palatable 13 per cent didn’t have one. Thirteen per cent of the 2009 population amounts to about 4.3 million people—slightly less than Layton’s number. Meantime, StatsCan’s Canadian Community Health Survey put the rate of access to a family doctor at about 85 per cent for 2007, 2008, and 2009, meaning about 15 per cent of Canadians don’t have a physician. So Layton’s estimate sounds about right.

But there’s more to the story. Just because some Canadians don’t have a family doctor hardly means they can’t find one. This is where the figures get tricky. A release about the Canadian Community Health Survey notes that of those without a regular doctor, more than half (54 per cent) said they had not even looked for one. Access also varied widely by province, with some places (Nova Scotia) recording consistently high rates of access (over 92 per cent) while others were much lower (Quebec hovers around 70 per cent). Similarly, the 2006 Decima survey for the CFPC also showed that less than half of those without a family physician—or less than two million people—had looked but couldn’t find one.

We called leading Canadian health policy analysts to find out what they thought about Layton’s assertion about the millions who “can’t find” a GP. They agreed it may be misleading. Morris Barer, director of UBC’s Centre for Health Services and Policy Research, says the five million statistic probably includes those who haven’t looked for a doctor. For example, says Barer, “many young people won’t bother establishing a relationship with a family physician because for the most part, they’re healthy.” Health policy consultant Michael Rachlis said the same, and noted that if care were better organized and distributed, everyone could get access. “But there are still too many who don’t have primary health care,” he added.

Heard something that doesn’t sound quite right? Send quotes from the campaign trail to macbullmeter@gmail.com and we’ll tell you just how much bull they contain.


Globe and Mail

Canadian Family Physician

Harris Decima 2009 survey

Statistics Canada’s Community Health Survey

Statistics Canada’s health trends analysis 2003-2009


The Bull Meter: Jack Layton on access to family doctors

  1. It is a problem the number of people without a family doctor. If someone does not have a doctor then their first contact with the health system when they do get sick will be in an ER. It is far more expensive for someone to visit an ER than to visit a family doctor about an illness (though sometimes necessary).

    The Canadian government which helps finance medicare should be concerned about people not having a family doctor and instead depending on the ER when they get sick.

  2. "If someone does not have a doctor then their first contact with the health system when they do get sick will be in an ER."

    What about walk-in clinics? People go to those all the time when they have small problems that need addressing rather than going to the ER, do they not?

  3. Some of us don't want a "Family Doctor", an archaic 10-4 relic of the 19th century that's no longer in line with our modern lifestyle.

    I get by just fine with using a Walk-In Clinic; it's open late, the waits are frequently reasonable, I don't have to phone and hope to get an appointment sometime this week, and it's just as good at handing me off to a specialist when necessary as it's predecessor.

    Gimme more of that.

  4. Those are no replacement for a doctor who knows you and your history though.

  5. There are also many of us who would like to switch doctors because ours are so busy and hard to get in to see. We have doctors, at least officially, but would really like another.

    Layton's point on the availability of doctors is very real and he's taking the proper stance. The Bull Meter is, once again, full of bull.

  6. I have a doctor and use walk in clinics. Clinics are fine for one time things like a sinus infection but you need someone who keeps tracl of your medical history going forward.

  7. As far as I know we are below average for the number of doctors per 1,000 population.

  8. Let me quickly put this issue into context. My wife and I recently moved to Montreal, along with our infant daughter. We haven't been able to get a regular pediatrician for her, let alone a family doctor for the two of us. If our daughter needs to see a doctor (e.g., to get immunizations), we have to take her to walk in clinic and wait for someone to see her. Anyone who has had an infant knows how awful it is sitting around trying to keep them entertained while waiting for something that may very well not happen for hours.

    True, a lot of the problem is that we moved after she was born; had she been born here, the province would have done something to find us a pediatrician. But as it is, the doctor shortage is having a very real impact on our lives. Maybe the 5 million number is exaggerated, but it is a huge problem.

  9. I'm suret that access to walk-in clinics is limited in smaller centres. I live in Mississauga & there are probably a dozen walk-ins I could easily access. One is even open from 7:00a.m. to 11:00p.m., but I'm sure this is the exception rather than the rule. If a walk-in isn't open when someone has a medical problem they are still likely to wind up in emergency.

  10. Interesting fact: clinics keep records as well.

  11. The easy fix to that is returning to the same clinic – they do keep files, after all. We tend to use the walk-in for things that need a quick fix (sinus infections or strep) as we have to wait 3-5 days for an appointment with our family doctor. We go to our family doctor for physicals, referrals, etc.

  12. Why is everyone forgetting that healthcare is a provincial issue, not a federal one? All the feds can legally do is write cheques.

  13. I'm a hemophiliac with arthritis. An "easy fix" with the wrong medication can lay me up for a couple weeks with bleeding into my joints or worse.

    My situation isn't that unusual…reactions to drugs are a major problem everywhere. Walk-in clinics are not a solution.

  14. And in rural areas, there are no walk-in clinics. In the town where my mother lives, the doctors show up every week or two and holds a clinic for a day. If you can't make it that day, or they can't fit you in, you have to wait or travel. The nearest hospital…small and not nearly fully equipped or staffed…is twenty minutes down the highway. There is no public transit, of course, so you either have to drive yourself or have somebody drive you. As often as not, they send you to a hospital in the city, an hour and half or so away.

    The situation up north is generally even worse than that.

  15. Of course they do but that's not the same as a medical history. They treat the specific complaint you come in for – not your general health. If they have concerns about something like blood pressure they will refer you to your GP.

  16. Well, Harper has an incentive in his budget to attract doctors to rural areas. In 2006 he ran on reducing wait times. So even he believes the Feds have a role to play. The problem is the shortgage isn't limited to rural areas.
    *Whatever happened to his wait times plan?

  17. I have a Bull Meter project suggestion.

    The Liberal platform condemns in several places the Harper policy of expensive prison expansion to accommodate the increased prison population that will result from the Harper government's U.S-style law and order agenda.

    Fine. What I don't see in the Liberal platform document is any indication at all that they intend to roll-back the laws that Harper changed (some with the Libs tactical support so as to avoid an election). Why not? How can they reject the increased spending without promising to repeal Harper's ill-advised legal changes.

    I have yet to see any media focus on this apparent gap in the Liberal election agenda. Someone needs to ask Ignatieff if he will repeal these changes, and if not, how does he plan to avoid spending more on new prison space.

  18. This is a real problem but I don't undersatnd the focus Jack and others are putting on the "rural" aspect. I'm sure there may be a shortage of family doctors in rural areas, but I live in downtown Calgary and I can't find a family doctor. I would like to have a family doctor, I have spent at least 10 hours trying to find a family doctor, and it's impossible.

  19. Having said all of that, I agree that this is a provincial issue. But I sure wish the province would get their act together and do something about this serious problem. Since moving here and being unable to get a family doctor I have twice had to visit an ER type place which wasn't efficient or appropriate but I had no choice as I needed medical attention.

  20. Furthermore, I would have visitied walk-in clinics for those ailments but the province does not maintain a list of walk-in clinics as they are "private" and no one I spoke to was able to direct me to one! This is ridiciulous. Even at the ER, when staff suggested I visit a walk-in with my problems, I asked them "sure, I'd love to, can you tell me where there is one in this area?" they had no answer for me! I asked multiple people and they all answered by saying they didn't live in the area and only knew of walk-in clinics where they go, near their homes. This is crazy! If we want to operate an efficient health care system where people seek care from the most appropirate provider, then front line employees need to know where local walk-in clinics are located AND need to have a better system for helping people find family doctors.

  21. Medicine was barely a profession for much of the 19th century. The concept of a “family doctor” was certainly non-existant. It is much more a product of the mid 20th century.

    I’m glad walk-in clinics are working for you – they certainly serve a purpose in the health care marketplace. My personal experience however has been that I have gotten much more consistent and overall better health care once I stopped going to walk-ins and seeing my regular nurse/doctor at my community health centre.

  22. Your bull drawing is quite provocative!

    I wouldn't consider Michael Rachlis a leading Canadian health policy analyst, but you can certainly count on him to provide a quote for any media article…

  23. I've been on Ontario's physician waiting list program for 5 months, and I haven't gotten a doctor yet. I'm grateful that Jack is pushing this.

  24. I don't have a doctor and haven't since I was 18. I have a naturopath that is not allowed to collect fees from medical even though I am forced to pay for medical premiums every month. Currently about $106. To add insult to injury the few things I must see a doctor for are not covered by medical. Medical exams for professional drivers license, Industrial first aid, life insurance sport diving and a host of others are not covered and even though they all ask the same questions there is a different charge for every one. I just go to the walk in clinic, some doctor that can't speak english asks if I ever had any of the problems listed, ticks all the no boxes signs it and collects between $100 and $ 150. Screw you very much. Anything else has required an ER anyhow.

  25. One of the trade offs for a freer lifestyle. If you have chronic health problems then a rural area is not for you.

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