About 200 Whistlerites are no longer without a primary care provider.
The first of those patients met their new family doctor, Dr. Joan Gatto, on Wednesday, March 29, the same day the Whistler 360 Health Collaborative Society officially opened the doors to its new satellite clinic on Main Street in Whistler Village.
On one hand, the new hire and new space have been a long time coming for a community that’s seen a handful of clinics shut down in just a few years. Still, “if you’d asked me in 2019 whether we would be doing this in 2023, I would have said you were crazy,” said Whistler 360 chair Carol Leacy.
The society stems from a Primary Care Task Force formed in 2019 to assess how access to primary care in Whistler could be improved. After reviewing a variety of successful models in other B.C. communities and incorporating as a society in 2021, Whistler 360 officially took over operations of the Whistler Medical Clinic—the resort’s last remaining family medicine practice—on Jan. 1, shifting the clinic to a non-profit financial model.
“We didn’t think we’d get charitable status until around now, but the fact that we got it last July means that everything was able to happen that much more quickly,” Leacy explained.
“It’s so nice to actually be at the place where we’re able to bring on new patients,” she added. “All of this seems to be coming together just for that one main reason, which is more primary care providers and more patients having access.”
Two more new providers expected to begin accepting patients in coming months
More than 1,040 names have been added to Whistler 360’s patient registry since it opened in February, said Leacy, about 20 per cent of which have already been assigned to Gatto. Whistler 360’s administrative staff have been busy making outbound calls and scheduling introductory appointments for new patients as space becomes available, while the registry remains open to any local seeking a primary care provider who hasn’t already signed up. In 2022, Whistler 360 estimated that about half of the resort’s approximately 14,000 residents did not have a family physician, compared to the approximately one-fifth of B.C.’s five million residents who are without a primary care provider.
“A doctor takes on roughly 1,000 to 1,500 patients in their panel,” Leacy explained. “But it takes time to build to that. You kind of want to ease them in, so the people that start being attached [as patients] are able to make appointments.”
Leacy said one of the Whistler Medical Clinic’s long-term locums has decided to take on a full-time panel of patients beginning mid-April. The society also expects to add a nurse practitioner to its staff in June.
In addition to Whistler 360’s existing roster of six full-time-equivalent providers, plus new physician Gatto, “that’s going to give us roughly 50-per-cent more capacity than what we would have had going into 2023,” Leacy explained.
But even taking into account the family physician Creekside Health added to its staff earlier this year, those new hires don’t quite close the gap: Whistler 360 estimates the community needs about 15 full-time-equivalent primary care practitioners to fully serve its population. With that in mind, Leacy said Whistler 360 will continue its recruiting efforts and explore other strategies like expanding hours in the months ahead, all while creating a uniquely attractive opportunity for family doctors.
Whistler 360 handles all of the clinic’s administrative operations and overhead costs, effectively eliminating some of the factors that hinder doctors from pursuing careers in family practice in B.C., and allowing physicians to focus solely on patient care.
‘We would never have been able to do this without their generosity’
Leacy attributes much of Whistler 360’s progress to the help of several community partners: Vancouver Coastal Health managed to free up two new treatment rooms in the Whistler Health Care Centre, adjacent to the existing Whistler Medical Clinic, while funds from the Whistler Health Care Foundation’s Dr. Rob Burgess Primary Care Fund and the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation’s Founders Pass program helped cover renovation and hiring costs. One individual donor generously stepped up to cover the approximately $20,000 tab for outfitting the two new treatment rooms, Leacy explained.
She also offered major credit to local business owners Terri Ohyama and Norbert Doebelin, who purchased the Main Street property that previously housed Town Plaza Medical Clinic when the practice closed last year. Ohyama and Doebelin wanted to see the space continue being used for primary care, said Leacy. “We approached them and said, ‘look, we’re interested, but,’ and they made us an incredibly generous offer, basically just covering some of the costs,” she explained. “We would never have been able to do this without their generosity.”
Aside from its growing team of care providers and newly-renovated spaces, Whistler 360’s electronic medical record system is also in store for a heavy-duty upgrade in September, said Leacy. The changes will provide patients with an improved portal they can use to book their own appointments, communicate with their care providers and obtain results, she explained.
Meet Whistler's newest family doc
Gatto’s new gig stemmed from a chance meeting in a Whistler park. The Rainbow dog park, to be more specific.
She was walking her two-year-old Sheltie when she struck up a chat with another dog owner. The conversation turned to work, and Gatto mentioned she was exploring opportunities in family medicine. “This lady told me about Whistler 360,” Gatto recalled.
“I didn’t want to do just locums and I didn’t want to be responsible for setting up my whole office again,” she said. “so Whistler 360 just sounded perfect.”
It was a natural fit for Gatto, who has been a part-time Whistler resident since 2000 and began practicing as a family physician in 1984—a career she’s “thoroughly enjoyed,” she said.
She grew up in the West Kootenays and learned to ski at Red Mountain, before studying medicine at the University of British Columbia. Gatto went on to operate a family practice in Osooyos for several years, but has worked for the last 14 as a hospitalist treating acutely ill geriatric patients in Vancouver. She underwent “some re-training” from November to January in order to renew her full-service family practice license and return to the slightly-less-gruelling hours of family practice, this time without the extra burden of running a small business. She’ll be treating patients on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
“It’s so similar to what I did in the hospital—I just looked after patients and all the other aspects were taken care of … It’s the same with Whistler 360,” she said. “They’re taking care of everything and I am just doing my job, seeing patients. Taking all of that stress away, it’s amazing what they have done.”