We’ve all heard the alarming news. Canadian family physicians are retiring in record numbers and the trend is predicted to only get worse. As a result, no matter where you are in Canada, finding a family doctor can be difficult. And if you already have one, getting an appointment can take far longer than just a few days.

While it’s difficult at such a time to think of the plight of the doctor, it’s worth noting that family doctors are experiencing dramatically increased rates of burnout, depression and anxiety.

For those of us still lucky enough to have a doctor, and in the spirit of helping your doctor help at such a difficult period for us all, Dr. Kate J. Miller, a family doctor from Guelph Ontario, offers some useful tips on how to support your family doctor.

Tips to Help Your Family Doctor

Book appointments well in advance. Book follow-up appointment on your way out the door if you can, or call back to make that follow-up if you’re on a virtual appointment. Set yourself reminders for long-term follow-ups such as annual checkups.

Book follow-ups as soon as you know you’ll need them. For example, if you’re getting an ultrasound, the day you find out when your ultrasound appointment is, is the day to call and book – not the day after the ultrasound is done. 

Be clear about why you need the appointment when you book it. That way, your family doctor can book the right amount of time, the right method (phone, video or in person) and with the right people and equipment.

If you have multiple issues, ask for extra time but also be prepared to not get all of them in on one visit. Do the most urgent first. Two big problems in one appointment likely won’t happen, but adding a small issue (e.g. an orthotics script) is rarely hard to do.

Book family members separate appointments if multiple people need to be seen.

If you have multiple questions you need answered by your doctor, you may need to make separate appointments – ask the receptionist how to best proceed. “A quick phone call for something simple” is sometimes neither quick nor simple, but often something that takes time. Let your family doctor plan for that time instead of expecting them to squish it in.

Arrive at your appointment. On time. Maybe even a little early if you’re going to an in-person meeting. If you can’t make it, call to cancel as there is likely a lineup of people waiting to take the time. Running late? Call to give a heads-up. The office can generally adjust if they know what is happening. Bear in mind that many family doctors now charge for missed appointments and for appointments cancelled with less than 24 hours’ notice.

Get a copy of all your medical records and keep them in one place. Gather all your X-ray results, lab results, CAT scans, vaccination records, dental records, physiotherapy or chiropractic documents. If there if there is a record about you, you should have it. Register with patient portals (labs, hospitals) where you can as they usually give you the option of downloading reports and results. Don’t waste your doctor’s time requesting results that you could have obtained on your own.

Follow up with the person who ordered the test – If it was a specialist that ordered a test, follow up with their office to get a copy of the results.

Renew your prescriptions in batches. When you ask your family doctor to renew a prescription, each request takes 10 minutes. Therefore, if you take multiple medications, renew your prescriptions in batches as it takes one extra minute to renew multiple drugs. Imagine the time savings over hundreds or thousands of patients.

Learn about your symptoms or conditions. Use the Web safely. Not all health information websites are created equal. We recommend using websites from hospitals and professional organizations that you can trust. When visiting with your doctor, it helps to come in with ideas, but without certainty that you have it all figured out. Your suspicions will often be correct, but sometimes they are wrong.

Be sure to acknowledge the doctor’s communication.  Always return their call if they leave a message asking you to do so. Always click the “confirm I received this email” button. If offered, sign up for email updates or website alerts from your doctor.

Be a patient patient. But not too patient.  Sometimes, a referral to a specialist can take months before you can be see. Sometimes, just to hear back regarding an appointment can take just as long. When your family doctor suggests a referral, ask how long you might expect to wait – not only to be seen but also to hear about an appointment. But don’t be afraid to follow up if you’ve heard nothing.  The squeaky wheel gets the oil. Call that specialist’s office and check that they received the referral.  Let them know that you are available on short notice to take a cancelled appointment.

Be kind. Family doctors (and all healthcare professionals) are doing their best in extremely difficult circumstances. They deserve our patience, understanding, respect and kindness. The more family physicians we lose, the worse off we all will be. So if we can do our part as responsible patients and care for these critical members of our community, we will all be better off for it.

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