Patients are facing waits of more than three hours to see a doctor at the Cottonwood Medical Clinic.
When staff arrive in the morning, there are already 10-15 people lined up. Some days there are disputes. On Saturday, a woman who lined up at the door was told by another who had been waiting in a car that she was first in line, because she got there first.
A doctor had to mediate the dispute.
It’s a symptom of a shortage of family doctors serving Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows.
At the clinic’s front desk, Brittany Goodrich said when she worked at Cottonwood five years ago, the longest wait would be two hours, but an hour was the norm. Returning recently, she finds three hours is common, and some people are forced to wait hours longer.
“It’s a world of difference, even in five years,” she said.
The people waiting on Wednesday afternoon say they either don’t have a family doctor, or won’t be able to get an appointment to see their family doctor for a week, so they go to the walk-in.
The privately owned Ridge Meadows Care Clinic, located at 22932 Lougheed Highway, shut its doors for the final time in the middle of the summer 2017, citing a shortage of doctors to fill shifts at the walk-in.
There is a shortage of 20 doctors serving Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, said Treena Innes, of the Ridge Meadows Division of Family Practice.
Her group, which supports family physicians, has been heavily involved in recruitment, and has had some success in recent years.
In 2013, the provincial government started a three-year program, called A GP for Me, which was designed to have more people get their own family doctor. It also resulted in 416 new physicians coming to the province, and 17 of those were in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows.
But physician recruitment is not keeping up with growth in Maple Ridge, said Innes, nor is it keeping up with replacing family doctors who have recently retired.
There are currently 66 family doctors in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, according to the division.
In 2015, the number was 87.
Complicating matters for those like Innes, who focus on physician recruitment, is that new doctors typically take fewer patients than the previous generation of doctors, as they seek a greater work-life balance.
Innes said two doctors are needed to replace every one who retires.
The division has asked some doctors to wait to retire, until they can be replaced, and they are obliging.
“We have a committed group of physicians who are hanging on,” said Innes.
The U.K. was a good place for B.C. agencies to recruit doctors from, but less so much now.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. has strict rules that frustrate international doctors attempting to have their qualifications recognized, said Innes.
As well, the Lower Mainland housing market is not attractive to immigrant doctors – not even in Maple Ridge.
“We’re getting a bit of a reputation as a higher-priced market,” said Innes.
She said recruiters locally continue with their Red Carpet Program, which includes incentives from local businesses and greetings from local mayors and other community leaders.
The division has approached the Ridge Meadows Hospital Foundation for help in physician recruitment, said foundation chair Ron Antalek. He has already been part of the recruiting effort, touring visiting physicians around the community.
Antalek said the two groups will meet next month, to see how the foundation can support the recruitment effort. Typically, the foundation’s role is in raising funds for hospital equipment and improvements.
“Hospital walls – the bricks and mortar – mean nothing without the skilled doctors, nurses and health care workers,” Antalek added.
“Where can we find these amazing doctors to be part of our community?”
He said the recruitment of 17 doctors over three years shows it can be done.
“Without the recruitment of those 17, we would be in a real, real tight mess.”
Innes is looking to Alberta, where some doctors have a shortage of patients, as a place to recruit.
She said A GP for Me got results, and the division is requesting the government continue it with another round of dedicated funding. The previous three-year funding has expired.
It was successful in attracting many doctors from South Africa, but diplomatic arrangements between Canada and South Africa have stopped the flow of physicians from that country.