Barbara Spencer tries to be proactive. That’s why on her drive across the country last fall, as she moved back to the Maritimes from Alberta, she phoned her former family doctor in Eastern Passage for an appointment.
“It never even occurred to me that he wouldn’t take me back,” she said.
But that’s exactly what happened. Her doctor already had a full slate of patients, and the office recommended that she call 811 to get on the provincial wait list.
Spencer has been waiting since October. She’s now one of more than 50,000 people on the wait list for a family physician in Nova Scotia. Statistics Canada estimates that nearly twice that — a full 11.3 per cent of the province’s 953,869 residents — are without a family doctor.
That includes half of Leicia Boyd’s household. She and her two young daughters have been on a wait list for more than three years.
WATCH: Leicia Boyd on her family’s struggle to find a family doctor
When her six-year-old daughter Bella was taken to the hospital with intense pain in her leg, doctors told her parents it may have been caused by a cyst or a tumour. Without a family doctor, Boyd says months of monitoring stretched into a year and a half.
“When you’re waiting to find out if your child has a tumour, it’s something you want to sit and talk (about) with someone who knows your child’s history,” she said.
She’s also been frustrated with the wait times at walk-in clinics.
“You can wait for upwards of three hours, and when you’ve got a kid that’s in pain or sick, or tired even, they don’t want to sit and they don’t want to be surrounded by strangers,” Boyd said.
WATCH: Tracy Whitakker-Taggart says ‘more people’ need to tell their story of waiting for a family doctor
Tracy Whittaker-Taggart says she recently lost three work days in waiting rooms dealing with a persistent migraine. She, too, is on the wait list, and has been for about six months.
“To me, a walk-in clinic should be for those not emergency room-level cases, but kind of urgent-level cases,” Whittaker-Taggart said. “I didn’t consider myself either of those, and yet I drained the resources of the emergency care system. It didn’t seem right but I had no other options. It’s not efficient at all.”
Whittaker-Taggart says she doesn’t have any more serious medical concerns, but her long waits for care were worrisome.
“What if I had something more serious? I can’t even imagine.”
Spencer’s concerns are more serious.
“I have all my specialists waiting to take me back here, because I have a lot of health issues,” she said. “So I have certain specialists that have been waiting to take me back, but you have to be referred from a family doctor. Well, it’s hard to be referred when you don’t have one.”
Spencer was left with memory deficits following a brain aneurysm six years ago, and says this makes it more difficult to get adequate care at a walk-in clinic.
“So every time I go see a different doctor, I have to repeat myself over and over again and I don’t remember it,” she said. “I don’t remember everything that’s wrong with me, or the dates.”
Joanne Thomas recently moved to Bass River, N.S., from New Mexico. Having spent most of her adult life in the United States, she was surprised to learn how many Nova Scotians rely on walk-in clinics for their primary health care.
“I was expecting to come back here (to Canada) and have health care like I was used to,” she said. “So what I’ve been saying to people is … ‘What good is free health care if you don’t have any access to it?’ It’s no good.”
“I’m sorry, right now I would gladly pay what I was paying before to have the access I had before. And you know, I lived in the U.S. for 30 years and never got U.S. citizenship because I feel so Canadian. Right now, I would trade my health care for the U.S. version any day of the week.”
WATCH: How an aneurysm has made one woman’s wait for a family doctor a daily struggle
Thomas says her husband and two sons have been to walk-in clinics for care since they arrived in Nova Scotia in January 2017. But she worries that she hasn’t had a regular check-up since then.
“I think it’s had an adverse effect overall on our health, and it’s very frustrating,” she said.
Each of the women say they’ve tried finding their own family physician, to no avail.
“This is just affecting regular, everyday Nova Scotians,” Whittaker-Taggart said. “And I think that the government needs to have a long, hard look about the strategies that they’re using and realize that what they’re trying to do.”
“They’re trying, but it’s not working. So let’s look at it again.”
— with files from Graeme Benjamin