A family doctor usually tackles any number of health concerns with patients: the flu, injuries, keeping up to date with shots and tests, referring you to a specialist and addressing mental health issues.
Despite the importance of a family physician, almost 4.8 million Canadians don’t have one, which means they lack consistent access to a doctor who understands their specific needs — and this can impact health long-term, according to multiple studies in several countries.
“People who have a family doctor and see that same doctor regularly … are more likely to have better health outcomes,” said Dr. Tara Kiran, a Toronto-based family doctor.
Having the continuity of a single provider over time means patients are more likely to get the screenings they need or have chronic conditions managed efficiently, said Kiran. They are also less likely to visit emergency rooms or be hospitalized, she added.
“Many people feel like, oh, I just have a cough, this is a minor issue. And they just go to a walk-in-clinic. What happens then is that you are losing an opportunity to build a relationship with someone who will be there for you, as things evolve and change in your life,” she said.
Finding a family doctor can be tough depending on where you live in Canada. Most physicians — 92 per cent — work in urban areas, making it often difficult to search for one in rural communities.
Based on your region, there are different methods for finding a family doctor, explained Kiran. Here’s how to start your search.
Why do I need a family doctor?
A family physician can find ways to enhance your health, even if the reason for your visit is seemingly minor, said Kiran.
“When I see a patient for a sore throat or sore ankle, I often am also thinking about how can I help to keep them well in the future. Are there immunizations they need … or screening tests they are overdue for?” she said. “I usually take the opportunity to broach those.”
Mental health concerns are also a topic a family doctor can discuss with you, said Kiran. “Being able to divulge that kind of information is usually a lot easier when you have an established relationship with someone,” she said.
Chronic conditions, like asthma, will likely be managed more consistently under the care of a family doctor, said Dr. Kim Wintemute, a family doctor and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
“So when that patient has an exacerbation of their asthma, and they go to the family doctor, they are going to be tuned in to what has worked in the past, what hasn’t worked, and what we should do now,” said Wintemute.
In contrast, a walk-in-clinic doctor is qualified but might not appreciate the nuances of a patient’s medical history, she explained.
“What may end up happening is they may end up trying things that don’t work for that patient,” she said.
Many often forget their medication history or what a medication was called, but a family doctor will have records in front of them, making it easier to determine what to prescribe, said Wintemute.
As Canadians, interactions with the health-care system will most often begin with a family doctor and they’re the ones to guide patients through that system, she said.
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“They not only know your medical history, they also know you,” she said. “When people have emotional upsets in life or difficult times … your family physician learns over time with you how you cope best, and help you through those times.”
How do I find a family doctor?
The process to search for a family physician can vary, and potentially be more difficult, depending on where you live.
Issues like lack of medical care and programming for Indigenous people in remote areas continue to be a concern, along with a lack of Indigenous health-care providers, Global News reported in 2018.
Recruiting family physicians in rural areas continues to be a challenge, as some doctors may not want to put down roots or build their lives in sparsely populated areas.
Even after most Canadians find a family doctor, only 31-46 per cent, depending on the province, could get a same-day or next-day appointment with their physician, according to a 2014 report by the Health Council of Canada.
Keeping these kinds of issues in mind, the best way to begin your search is to see if you live in a province that has a centralized waitlist for people who need a family doctor, said Kiran.
“So there’s a number you can call, and they can try to find you a family doctor within your region,” she said. For instance, in Ontario you can call a government service called Health Care Connect, and they will put you on a waitlist, Kiran explained.
“How successful that process is in finding you a doctor probably depends to some degree on where you live in Ontario,” she said, adding it can be tougher in rural areas.
Outside of the waitlist, Kiran recommends you approach the department of medicine at a university as they are training family doctors and it’s possible to connect with resident physicians at a teaching clinic.
Residents are fully trained family doctors who are supervised by experienced medical professionals, she said. “Often resident patients are able to get excellent care,” she said.
Word of mouth also remains a less official, though effective, way of finding a doctor, said Wintemute.
“If you have family members or friends who do have a family doctor, sometimes you can ask through those people,” she said. “And if the doctor is not able to take on new patients, sometimes the doctor’s office will have a list of doctors who are, so they can direct people in that way.”
Once you do have a family doctor, it’s not essential to see them annually unless you are over the age of 65 or have ongoing health concerns, she said.
“Every two to three years is good for most adults,” she said.
How to find a family doctor in each province and territory:
British Columbia: The B.C. College of Family Physicians recommends patients contact HealthLink BC at a toll-free number where a health service navigator can help provide information on how to find a doctor in your area.
Alberta: Patients can use the Find a Family Doctor tool provided by Primary Care Networks to see who is available in your area. The Find a Physician tool is also available on the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta website. Contacting HealthLink Alberta is also an option to speak to someone who can guide you.
Saskatchewan: The Saskatchewan Health Authority has a list of regions in the province and where doctors are accepting new patients. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan also has a physician search tool available for patients.
Manitoba: The provincial government has a tool called the Family Doctor Finder where patients can register online or by phone so they can be connected with a clinic in the area.
Ontario: Patients can register with Health Care Connect to be put on a waitlist to find a doctor. They can also use the doctor search tool on the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario website.
Quebec: The provincial government has a waitlist where patients can register. They can also register over the phone.
New Brunswick: The province has a registry called Patient Connect to match residents with a family doctor if they don’t already have one.
Nova Scotia: The province recommends patients call 811 or register with the Need a Family Practice Registry, which is a waitlist.
Prince Edward Island: Residents can join the Provincial Patient Registry and a doctor will be assigned when one becomes available.
Newfoundland and Labrador: Patients can search a list of family physicians in their area to find a family doctor that are taking new patients.
Yukon: The territory has a match service for patients needing a family doctor.
Northwest Territories: A list of physicians in the Northwest Territories can be found here and clinics can be contacted individually.
Nunavut: The territory’s Department of Health provides contact numbers and a map to health-care services where family physicians can be found.