Family doctors in Lethbridge aren’t accepting new patients. Seniors say that’s terrifying

Paul Stevenson has lived in Lethbridge, Alta., off and on, for around five decades. 

His wife, who at 73 years old has serious health concerns, has lived in the community her entire life. In that time, she has never been without a family doctor — until the last few months.

Recently, Stevenson’s wife was sent to the emergency room for care. The doctor there told her that her condition may worsen and that she needed to speak with her doctor to follow up. Her reply was: “I have no doctor to go to.”

“I would say both my wife and I have had sleepless nights over it. I mean, you worry a lot,” Stevenson said. 

“It’s not too harsh to say it’s terrifying. There’s nobody there right now, for her or for me, to advocate for what we need.”

Paul Stevenson has been searching for a new family doctor for months. That’s leading to stress and anxiety for Stevenson and his wife, who has chronic health issues. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

It’s a familiar refrain for residents across Lethbridge. As of Friday, online listings provided by the Chinook Primary Care Network (CPCN) indicate no family doctors in the community of more than 100,000 residents are accepting new patients.

But it is a struggle that is particularly distressing for seniors, many of whom have chronic health conditions.

Seniors also often develop long-term relationships with their doctors, who know the details of their personal medical history intimately. 

That’s something that Stevenson said he misses, especially with a history of colon cancer in his family.

“[My doctor] was advocating for me to get regular testing,” he said. “Well, I don’t have that anymore. And that’s the terrifying part. Like, what do I do?”

Province says recruitment strategy underway

Tim Neufeld, clinic manager for Lethbridge’s Campbell Clinic, previously told CBC News that Lethbridge has seen multiple physicians retire and others leave the community to practice elsewhere. 

Others haven’t been available to take their place.

The shortage in the city led Lethbridge NDP MLA Shannon Phillips to send a letter to the health minister on Nov. 3 calling for a short-term targeted physician recruitment plan and a long-term physician attraction program, among other measures.

“With tens of thousands of residents without access to any form of primary care, we can tell you that tensions here are high, people want answers, but more importantly, they want action,” Phillips wrote.

Staff at the emergency department of the Chinook Regional Hospital have noticed an increase in visits from those who don’t have anywhere else to go. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

In an email, a spokesperson for Alberta’s health minister said the province was aware of the concerns.

Alberta Health Services and the CPCN are developing a “broad recruitment strategy,” the spokesperson said, adding that AHS is currently interviewing applicants for AHS-sponsored positions for new Lethbridge family doctors.

“Depending on the outcome, they hope to see new family physicians working in the community soon,” said Steve Buick in an email. 

Buick added that Alberta Health has given CPCN approval to recruit a new nurse practitioner.

Concerns linger

While residents wait for potential outcomes of that recruitment strategy to play out, concerns among the senior demographic persist.

Rob Miyashiro, executive director of the Lethbridge Senior Citizens Organization, said the atmosphere among seniors in the community is one of fear.

“It just perpetuates itself, and it just builds on itself,” he said. “That’s what the fear is — that they’re not going to get what they need when they need it.”

Rob Miyashiro, executive director of the Lethbridge Senior Citizens Organization, lost his doctor in recent months. He said he’s heard the senior community express fear over how their health concerns will be handled amid a shortage of family doctors in the community. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

Al Ripka is another Lethbridge senior without a doctor. His doctor passed away this summer from cancer.

Since then, he’s been calling around the city and showing up to clinics in an attempt to find another doctor, with no luck.

“Well, I guess there’s nothing you can really do,” he said. “I’ll keep on phoning, and trying.”

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