Original Published 13:36 May 04, 2022

By Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

If you’ve tried booking an appointment to see your doctor at the Pincher Creek Associate Clinic, chances are you were told the next available appointment was months away.

The number of full-time physicians at the clinic has dropped from nine to five within the past year, and without replacements the clinic’s patient list of around 10,000 is now being shared by the remaining doctors.

The resulting strain, says executive director Jeff Brockmann, is not ideal.

“It’s natural for people to be concerned,” he adds. “It’s not a good feeling to be telling people that they have to wait to see a physician.”

Though many on the 10,000 patient list live outside of town, the fact they are on the clinic’s rolls means they lived in the area and registered with a doctor at one time. The clinic does not take new patients living out of the area.

Despite the problems with maintaining such a high patient list with many no longer assigned one physician, Brockmann says the clinic will not cut patients.

“We’re not willing to say, ‘Well your physician is gone so now you got to find someone else, it’s on you.’ That’s not a position we can put our community in,” he says.

Although the number of med school graduates committing to rural practice has declined over the years, the situation has been compounded by the fact no formal agreement exists between physicians and the provincial government. 

Interest-based negotiations between the province and the Alberta Medical Association began April 1, though Brockmann says the lack of agreement makes recruiting doctors to the area challenging due to insecurity.

“The point-blank feedback I’ve had is ‘I’m going to wait until this pans out,’ and while they’re waiting they’re settling in other places,” Brockmann continues, “so the people who would be attracted to a place like Pincher Creek are settling into other rural communities in British Columbia.”

Though attracting graduates to rural practices has been difficult, there is much to be optimistic about for physicians in Alberta, says Dr. Gavin Parker, a physician at the clinic and chairman of the Rural Health Professions Action Plan board.

He points to the province’s excellent electronic health record, connective care network, and hospital locations, particularly in southwestern Alberta.

“There’s nowhere else in the country you’ll go and every 30 minutes run into a decent hospital. It’s very unusual,” Parker adds. “The day-to-day work is very satisfying in this province — I love being a rural doctor; there’s not a day I go into work that I’m not happy to go in there.”

Though Parker is optimistic about the future, the immediate delay in patient care in Pincher Creek is of course a concern. To help alleviate some of the strain, Parker recommends the following:

—The clinic offers an app called My Health Access, which both Parker and Brockmann encourage patients to use. The app allows patients to book and cancel appointments, send messages about upcoming visits, and receive notices from the clinic.

Of the 10,000 patients with the clinic, only 600 or so use the app, so more people getting on board will greatly streamline the clinic’s operations. More information and a QR code for the app can be found on this page.

—If you want to see a doctor about refilling a prescription, talk first with your pharmacist. Pharmacists can speak directly and securely with doctors, and many prescriptions can be refilled without an appointment.

—Go to the emergency room only in the event of a medical emergency. Parker estimates 80 per cent of current visits to the ER are not emergencies. Call Health Link at 811 if you’re unsure whether your condition requires emergency care.

—Many medical procedures, such as suture removal or women’s health checkups like pap smears, can be completed by nursing staff under a physician; check with the front desk if a procedure actually requires a doctor.

All in all, Parker wants the members of the community, including newcomers, to know that despite the current challenges they have a medical home at the clinic.

“We want to reassure people that if your family doctor has left, we got your back,” he says. “Your needs will be taken care of — you will be cared for by our clinic.”

This item reprinted with permission from Shootin’ the Breeze, Pincher Creek, Alberta