Calgary doctors say lack of access to primary care may be behind low flu vaccination in Alberta

Click to play video: 'Low flu vaccine rates in Alberta may be linked to lack of access to family doctors'
Low flu vaccine rates in Alberta may be linked to lack of access to family doctors
WATCH: Less than a quarter of people living in Alberta have received their flu shot this season. The number of seniors getting vaccinated is well below the target rate, too. As Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports, some medical professional say part of the problem is the lack of family doctors in Alberta. – Feb 2, 2024

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the name of the supportive living facility. We regret the error.

Avelina Oderkirk says it was a bad case of the flu and not having a family doctor that started her journey into supportive living.

Last year her symptoms were so bad that she fell and injured her shoulder and now can’t live independently.

“It was bad because at the time I didn’t have a family doctor,” said Oderkirk who now lives at Calgary’s Gilchrist Commons.

“The year before I didn’t have the flu shot.  I had the flu and that’s why I ended up here,” said Oderkirk.   She enjoys the surroundings and the friends she has made at the new Silvera for Seniors facility in northeast Calgary but she wonders what would have been different if she didn’t miss getting vaccinated that year.

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Oderkirk got her flu shot this year and hasn’t been sick. The same goes for other residents at Gilchrist Commons.

“I got it because my family doctor felt it was an important thing,” said Lynn Orr. “She won’t let me forget.  She made sure that I got it.”

Evelyn Greene said she wanted to avoid getting the flu so she got vaccinated when AHS staff came to the Gilchrist Commons.

“I hope they continues with that. I think it’s much needed. They came in here and gave us the flu shot and the COVID shot and that was really good because we didn’t even have to leave the building,”  She also credits her family doctor for giving sound medical advice.

“He’s a great doctor, and I feel really blessed for other reasons too. He saved my life actually when he found a mole that I had removed,” Greene said.

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This flu season, only 24 per cent of Albertans have received an influenza vaccination and only 61.8 per cent of Alberta seniors have had the shot.

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That’s much lower than national figures that show vaccination rates among Canadians seniors ranged, on average, between 70 and 74 per cent during the last four flu seasons.

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Canada’s goal is to have 80 per cent of high risk groups immunized.

The president of the Alberta Medical Association says the province could do more when to comes to vaccine messaging.

“There’s no question that reminding people around preventative medicine is critical.  We’re all human. If we’re feeling fine, we don’t think about things that need to be done to keep us feeling fine and keep us healthy. So there’s no question our government and our province could do infinitely better on that messaging and on that encouragement,” Parks said.

Dr. David Hogan, a geriatric specialist at the University of Calgary,  says there are many factors that go into why a person may or may not get vaccinated.

He says the lack of family doctors could be playing a roll in low vaccination rates because they help people make informed decisions.

“What I do wonder about is the problems we’re having now with primary care in the province. Maybe people aren’t contacting primary care physicians and nurse practitioners as much to get  advice,” Hogan said.

“Generally people do know about the influenza vaccine and do know that they should receive it. There are misconceptions out there that can be talked through if they had seen their primary care physician and that might’ve led to slightly more people going for the vaccine,” Hogan said.

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Hogan said the decisions are often based on general information and the specific advice people get from a practitioner they know and trust.

He expects to learn more about what may have been behind the lower rate when Albertans are surveyed regarding this year’s vaccination.

“The opinion of a trusted source of health information is important. In addition to saying it’s time for influenza vaccination, they could also discuss it and allay any concerns people may have. They can say this has how effective it is, the potential side effects and  on balance, say this is in your best interest and talk it through and help them make that decision,” Hogan said.

According to provincial data, 129 people have died from the flu this season in Alberta and 2,622 have been hospitalized.

“Vaccinations don’t help just you. They help the whole community because they decrease the spread and they help our acute care system, which is under tremendous pressure. There’s multiple reasons why vaccines are so critical for the population and for individuals and we could absolutely be doing way better,” Parks said.

“If Albertans had a family medicine specialist that they could see regularly, that they could build a trusting relationship with where they could have these discussions, there’s no question in my mind that our vaccine rate would be considerably better and our population would be healthier generally overall.”

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