02/22/2013 03:44 EST | Updated 04/24/2013 05:12 EDT

Doctor's advice in B.C. is a phone call away as government pays $15 per call

VANCOUVER - It's almost as good as a house call.

The British Columbia government will soon be paying doctors to take telephone calls from their patients.

The province will allow doctors to bill $15 per call, to a maximum of 500 each year starting April 1, as part of its grander scheme to match all patients with a family doctor who want one by 2015.

B.C.'s health minister said Friday that compensating doctors for phone calls will dial down their workloads and help free them up to see more patients at the office, but it's just one piece of the plan to keep costs in check as the government strives to balance the budget.

"The doctors involved in this initiative don't feel burdened, they feel a burden is lifted off their shoulders," Margaret MacDiarmid told reporters at the funding announcement in Vancouver.

The latest B.C. budget released Tuesday said health care costs are nearing half the province's total expenses and the government believes programs that incur costs up-front will reduce the need for more expensive care down the line.

About 176,000 British Columbians do not have a family doctor.

MacDiarmid said the government is adding another $24 million to a $132 million package within the province's physician master agreement to expand a pilot program that has helped 9,400 people find family doctors over the past two years.

The funding will be divvied up into several initiatives meant to work as incentives for doctors to take new patients and to make the system more efficient.

Doctors will be paid $200 for accepting each new patient who has serious health conditions, such as cancer, severe disabilities, maternity needs and mental health and substance use problems.

Another $135 per patient will be paid for doctors who must develop long-term care plans for patients with such complex conditions.

They'll be paid $40 for 15-minute patient conference calls, up to three hours per person annually, in which they can co-ordinate health planning with other specialists.

Millions of more dollars will be distributed to family practice groups, who will be encouraged to decide amongst themselves if the cash should go towards recruiting more doctors in their communities, or paying for other health care providers such as nurses.

Dr. Shelley Ross, president of the B.C. Medical Association, said doctors have been a big part of devising the plan to ensure all British Columbians have their own general practitioner.

A family doctor takes a long view of their patient's health history and their family's health history, and is best-suited to co-ordinate all aspects of the person's care, Ross said.

"Patients who successfully manage their health throughout their lives are able to delay or even prevent chronic conditions in the future," she said. "They have fewer hospital visits and have a better overall quality of life."

The Lower Mainland region of White Rock-South Surrey is being touted as an example of how successful similar initiatives have been.

Two years ago, family doctors were turning away multiple requests to take on new patients each day. But since that time the community has recruited seven new doctors, opened a special clinic for people discharged from hospitals who don't have their own doctor and hired more registered nurses.

Those measures created the space for 4,500 more people to get family doctors, and currently there is still space for more.

Similarly, another 1,100 patients in the Cowichan Valley now have doctors, along with another 3,800 in Prince George.

MacDiarmid said that as the program expands further, she could foresee people using cameras on their computers to talk with doctors to receive care.

"I don't see why it couldn't (work), it's the way of the future. I bet you there are doctors in B.C. today who use Skype," she said.

Patients who do want care by phone can expect to book consults in the same way as usual appointments, by calling their doctor's office in advance. They can arrange to speak about most health needs, and the doctor will be prepared to give advice and treatment, said a government spokesman.

Although the consult is not specifically intended for renewing a prescription, that may occur as well.

On average it costs $30 for visit to the actual doctor's office.