‘It’s unending:’ Ottawa doctor says shortages are creating burnout

Fifteen minutes after the Meadowlands Family Health Centre opened its doors Tuesday morning, family physician Dr. Barry Dworkin was already staring at appointments with roughly 20 patients. 

He started the day with an open calendar. 

Like many physicians across the country, Dr. Dworkin has a patient list of more than 1,600 people. Every day, he deals with dozens of in-person and telehealth consults, while updating the records, prescriptions, and treatments of more than twice that many. 

“Nine more in the urgent care box, another 18 to go through again. It’s unending,” Dr. Dworkin quipped after refreshing his checklist for the second time that morning. 

“The problem is there’s only a certain amount of time in the day and we need more coverage, we need a nurse practitioner, a physician’s assistant, because there’s a lot of things that can be handled by other staff,” he added.

The frenetic pace and seemingly unending list of incoming tasks are just some of the factors that are leading to burnout across the health care industry, particularly among family doctors. 

“We’re at a very critical juncture in our health care systems across the country because we’re not seeing enough family physicians; five million Canadians without a family doctor, we need to address that problem now,” Dr. Ann Collins, the former Canadian Medical Association President, said.  

In Ontario there are more than 1.3 million people without a family doctor. The shortages are frustrating not only those looking for care, but those attending as well. 

“You need to add more physicians on but there’s no family physicians that actually do this anymore,” Dworkin said. 

Dworkin says the result is doctors working long hours, including on weekends and vacations, all in an effort to simply stay up to date and not be overwhelmed by each day’s workload. He says it’s that pressure that creates burnout and fatigue; something he and other doctors are constantly mindful of. 

“When you start to lose your empathy, you know you’re in trouble. It hasn’t gotten there yet, but there have been days where your empathy gets really tried,” Dworkin said. 

Experts say more needs to be done to recruit physicians and nurses.

“We have to make it more desirable for physicians to choose as a speciality, but also to stay as a speciality,” Collins said. 

But any solution will take years, leaving doctors like Dworkin filling the gap and seeing as many patients as they can within the tight constraints of the day.

“We need to be very, very concerned because we’re losing many years of a family physicians services,” Collins said. 

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