Phones ringing off the hook at medical clinic taking new patients

When people in need of a doctor show up at Southbank Medical Centre, they’re asked to fill out a new patient form and given a stark breakdown of their chances.

“We’ve been getting phone calls, like thousands of phone calls a day,” one nurse told two men waiting outside the Ottawa clinic Tuesday evening before wishing them luck with their applications.

“I can’t tell you a day that they’re going to be able to give you a call,” she continued. “It may take a week. It may take a couple of weeks, and it may take a couple of months.”

The centre and walk-in clinic in South Keys — no stranger to long lines — has been absolutely swamped by visitors after a sign about a new doctor was photographed, posted online and spread like wildfire. 

The clinic has found itself on the front line of the city’s family physician shortage, with Ottawa Public Health giving an update on the situation at Monday night’s health board meeting.

According to the update from Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches, roughly one in 10 residents didn’t have a family doctor as of March 2020. 

A similar estimate from national surveys of the number of residents without access to regular primary care may now be as high as 150,000. 

That need is only increased by recent immigrants, who especially struggle to find primary care. According to Etches’ update, Ottawa is “currently failing” newcomers in this regard. 

‘The phones were ringing like crazy’

While Dr. Paule Davilmar — who recently moved to Gatineau, Que., from New Brunswick — doesn’t open her family practice until Feb. 21, the crowds began to form at Southbank Medical on Friday soon after the sign was posted in the waiting and patient exam rooms.

A line of about 50 people had wrapped around the building before the centre opened Monday morning.

Office administrator Debbie Walsh, who didn’t know they’d announced Davilmar’s arrival when she came to work that day, said in 18 years working there she’d never seen demand that high. 

“The phones were ringing like crazy,” she said. “The emails were coming in. And I was like, what is happening?” 

It’s so sad that these patients are without doctors.​​​​​– Debbie Walsh, office administrator

By the end of day, clinic staff had handed out 450 new patient forms.

When an overwhelmed Walsh told people to email them instead, her inbox was stuffed with 1,500 messages.

While Tuesday was calmer, the phones continued to ring, Walsh said, and by that evening roughly 3,000 people had tried contacting them one way or another since Sunday.

Prospective new patients are being asked to fill out forms like these, although the clinic is also reminding them that they’re getting thousands of phone calls and it’s unclear when they’ll hear back. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Walsh said she’s even snuck through the rear entrance in recent days, hoping to not get swarmed as soon as she walks in the door. 

“It’s so sad that these patients are without doctors,” she said.

CBC has so far been unable to line up an interview with Davilmar. But Dr. Anees Khan, one of the centre’s part-owners, said it’s up to her to decide how many new patients she’s comfortable taking.

While another of their doctors is also topping up their list of patients, the centre cannot take on everyone, Khan said — even if it’s in “perpetual recruitment mode.”   

“Because this is a mission,” the physician said. “It’s not a business. It’s a mission.” 

They even tried bringing doctors from the United Kingdom a few years ago, Khan said, although they didn’t like Canada’s health-care system or climate and left.

By the end of day, Southbank Medical Centre staff had handed out 450 new patient forms.
By the end of Monday, Southbank Medical Centre staff had handed out 450 new patient forms. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Khan said the work at Southbank Medical is done with a passion and love of Ottawa, and he ensures all new doctors are aware of that.

He said Ontario’s Ministry of Health should subsidize rent or even the salaries at small operations like his, and that one way to alleviate stress is to recruit more foreign-trained physicians whose credentials can be verified.

“I think that is doable,” he said. “All that it needs is intention and grit … so that patients are not held at ransom.”

‘Keeping my fingers crossed’

Outside the centre’s front doors, would-be patients like Vasu Upadhya are told there’s no guarantee he can land a doctor even after driving in from Kanata. 

His doctor announced she’s retiring following a maternity leave and Upadhya has already been calling family physicians at local hospitals and opening applications as far away as Smiths Falls, Perth and Arnprior.

Vasu Upadhya's doctor announced she's retiring, leaving him to call physicians' offices and open applications as far away as Smiths Falls, Perth and Arnprior in an attempt to find primary care.
Upadhya’s doctor has announced she’s retiring, leaving him to call offices and open applications as far away as Smiths Falls, Perth and Arnprior in an attempt to find primary care. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Filling out the new patient form, he left the parking lot frustrated — but with few other options. 

“I tried my best,” Upadhya said. “So [I’m] keeping my fingers crossed, and hopefully I get to hear back from them.”

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