Coast Medical Whistler, one of three family practices in the resort, announced it would be closing next month.
In an email to patients, the clinic said it was "with mixed emotions" that it would be shutting its doors on May 29 and urged patients to make arrangements to find a new physician. It is one of three Coast Medical clinics, along with its False Creek and Yaletown locations.
Coast Medical patients should visit HealthLink BC for a referral to walk-in clinics and health resources available in the area. HealthLink is accessible by dialling 811 or visiting healthlinkbc.ca.*
A spokesperson for the clinic declined to comment.
While it's unclear the reasoning behind the closure at this point, family physicians have discussed the challenge of operating a viable practice in Whistler with escalating overhead costs and an inability to recruit staff long before COVID-19 hit.
"What's specific to Whistler is the cost of living here is exceptionally high by any Canadian standards," said Dr. Cathy Zeglinski in an interview with Pique last month. In 2017, Zeglinski closed the clinic she founded in 2005. "And doctors cannot charge ... in order to compensate for that extra cost of living. So attracting new doctors has always been a challenge."
Dr. Karin Kausky of the Whistler Medical Clinic said with the COVID-19 crisis in full swing, currently the practice does not have the capacity to take on new patients. "We're going to have to sit down and have a look at what we can do to provide that for the community," she said.
"I don't know the specifics of Coast Medical, but to my knowledge they've had a physician working there two to three days a week. That seems to me the slack that will need to be taken up."
In the interim, those without a family doctor can access the virtual walk-in clinic established last month by the Sea to Sky Division of Family Practice. Through that portal, accessed at divisionsbc.ca/sea-sky, patients can consult with a GP and set up a primary care appointment by phone or teleconference as required. Walk-in clinic Town Plaza Medical remains open as well, with patients being asked to call ahead.
For urgent care needs, patients should visit the Whistler Health Care Centre (WHCC)—something medical director Dr. Bruce Mohr said some patients have been reluctant to do for fear of infection or putting undue stress on the healthcare system.
"People are showing up late for conditions that they need to be going to hospital for," he said. "What they need to know is that the emergency departments and hospitals are safe and that they have the capacity to see patients."
Mohr estimated the healthcare centre was currently hovering around 25 per cent capacity, and with the additional sanitary and physical-distancing measures in place, patients can rest easy visiting the facility.
"With the current COVID climate, which isn't going away, everything takes longer to look after and takes more space," he said. "That's something that's going to take time. It's going to be a very new normal, but we certainly have capacity to see more patients than we are currently seeing. We're concerned that some people are avoiding coming in and we don't want that to happen."
Earlier this month, B.C. relaxed its COVID-19 testing criteria so that anyone presenting symptoms can be tested. Locally, medical practices are referring symptomatic patients to the WHCC, where they will be swabbed outside the facility.
A single physician will administer the tests at a set time each day in order to conserve much-needed personal protective equipment, said Kausky.
"Hopefully in the next few weeks, we'll have maybe a better idea of what the prevalence of this disease is in our community—at least prevalence in symptomatic patients," she said.
Symptomatic patients with more severe symptoms can also be referred to the emergency room at the WHCC for further assessment, Mohr noted.
For more information on testing, visit vch.ca/COVID19.
Meanwhile, UBC's Centre for Rural Health Research has launched a study to better understand rural and remote communities' experiences of and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The responses will inform rural healthcare planning across the province. The public can take an online survey at bit.ly/RERCOVID-19 or contact project coordinator Christine Carthew at firstname.lastname@example.org to participate in a confidential interview to discuss your experience with the virus.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly directed patients seeking a new physician to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC, which was based on information contained in an email to Coast Medical patients.