Greg Thomson remembers the last time he was dropped as a patient. He was living in Vancouver at the time, and his family physician decided to close her practice in favour of a cancer research position. That was before he made the move to Whistler in the early 2000s.
“Now, again, I’ve lost my doctor’s office—it’s the second time for me, but the bigger problem now is we have a child,” he said.
Thomson, his wife and three-year-old daughter have been without a primary care provider since Whistler’s Town Plaza Medical Clinic closed its doors on May 1 after more than a quarter-century of operations. The family has previously brought their daughter, Skye, to a clinic in Squamish, “but that’s 45 minutes away,” Thomson said.
A call to the Whistler Medical Clinic, the resort’s only remaining family practice, confirmed the clinic is not accepting new patients at this time. Patients without a family doctor looking for non-urgent care within the resort should call the clinic on Saturdays or Sundays when the office opens at 9 a.m. to schedule a same-day appointment. Weekday appointments are generally reserved for existing patients.
Meanwhile, the Whistler Health Care Centre’s emergency room is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
British Columbians covered by the province’s medical services plan can also schedule virtual appointments with doctors, mental health counsellors or dieticians for free via the TELUS Health MyCare program from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.
The online care provider offers services like referrals and prescription renewals, though the website states its “doctors may be unable to prescribe medications that require an in-person assessment by a physician who has an established relationship with you,” including but not limited to opiates, benzodiazepines and some stimulant medications.
British Columbians can also call the HealthLink line at 811 for advice.
In an email, a spokesperson for Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) acknowledged that "many people in the province are feeling the effects of the capacity challenges our health-care system is facing," including Sea to Sky locals.
Expressions of interest for PCNs across the Sea to Sky region are currently being reviewed, with the first phase planned for Whistler and the second set to take place in Squamish.
In the meantime, Thomson, who said he has had several bouts with skin cancer, recently managed to schedule a one-time weekday phone appointment with Whistler Medical Clinic’s Dr. Josh Forestell, who provided Thomson with a referral to a dermatologist.
But when it comes to in-person care, Thomson said he and his family are now considering leaving Whistler due to the lack of family doctors.
Health-care “is one of those things that people only deal with when they’re confronted with it,” he added, “because nobody thinks they’re going to get hurt … You just think you’re not going to have that problem when you’re healthy. And then people procrastinate and think things will just take care of themselves, but they won’t.”
Without access to family doctors, Whistler is becoming “less and less of a community,” said Thomson.
Former Town Plaza patients can access medical records through non-profit
Confounding the stress of navigating life without a family doctor for Thomson is the process of obtaining his medical records from the last two decades as a Town Plaza patient.
The family practice and walk-in clinic served approximately 200 patients a week prior to its closure, and counted about 100 regular patients, who are now invited to access their medical records online.
Patients will likely receive a notification call or letter in the mail from MedRecords, a B.C.-based non-profit that’s working on behalf of Town Plaza to inform patients of the clinic’s closure and offer them the opportunity to retrieve their records.
In order to access those records, patients need to provide their personal health number, their new doctor’s name and a valid credit card. It takes up to 30 days for records to be sent to a new primary care provider, and comes at a cost ranging from $37.50 to $85.95 per patient record, excluding taxes and shipping.
Patients without a new family doctor can opt to have their records released to them directly, but that can take up to 45 days to and is accompanied by an additional $65 charge per record.
When a medical practice closes, patient records are typically sent to private storage companies that keep them for as long as the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC guidelines recommend. To obtain a copy of these records, some of these storage facilities have historically charged upwards of $600 per record, according to MedRecords founders, a prohibitive amount for many patients. That reality was reportedly what led to the non-profit’s founding a little under a decade ago.
Still, Thomson said he’d rather have been handed a hard copy of his records, and believes patients should “absolutely not” have to pay for their records.