07/12/2013 05:25 EDT | Updated 09/11/2013 05:12 EDT

What's the Cure for Canada's Doctor Shortage?

Very few would dispute the fact that Canada has a doctor shortage -- and has had for years. Patients are forced to resort to emergency rooms and walk-in clinics for their primary care, and with more and more doctors set to retire, the problem will only worsen over the next years.

What is often not reported, however, is that there may be light at the end of the tunnel for some communities who are experiencing a doctor shortage -- if they are willing to think out of the box. Some municipalities are taking it upon themselves to mount physician recruitment campaigns, enticing young doctors to open practices in their communities, and the doctors themselves have been responding. Cities like Cambridge, Ontario have completely closed their health care gap in the last several years with their intensive recruitment program, outlining the highlights of living and working in the community and even selling new doctors on the opportunities their spouses will enjoy in the city.

Physicians themselves are beginning to embrace new ways of working and delivering their services. More doctors are joining group practices or family health teams in order to work together and service more patients. Clinics are bringing in Nurse Practitioners -- registered nurses with additional education and experience who are able to order and interpret diagnostic tests, communicate diagnoses, prescribe pharmaceuticals, and perform specific procedures - who can lighten the load on the physicians. Some clinics have joined forces with chiropractors, physiotherapists, psychotherapists and dieticians in order to provide a wider range of services and specialties.

The reality is that fewer young doctors, particularly doctors with young children, are willing to work the long hours that have traditionally been part and parcel of the profession, so they are finding ways to provide their services while still maintaining some balance in their own lives. Statistics Canada reports that doctors work an average of 51 hours weekly (that rises to 70 hours when you include on-call duty.) Yet today's young doctors work about seven hours a week less, and many work part-time, particularly after they have children.

With all of these new approaches making their way into the Canadian health care system, it seems that patients are sometimes the ones who are having trouble keeping up. The old system of one patient, one doctor, with a long-term relationship, is a thing of the past. And despite the provincial Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons -- the provincial bodies that regulates doctors -- prohibiting the pre-screening of patients, anecdotal evidence would suggest that it is not uncommon for doctors to request a meeting with a prospective new patient to determine whether or not they will be taken on. It is also not uncommon to hear of a full practice taking on friends or family of existing patients.

All of this suggests that patients must advocate for themselves more than ever before and that often means keeping informed and doing the necessary leg-work to find out exactly what is going on in their community in terms of doctors, clinics, and health care options.

Services such as Doctorlink, Canada's most comprehensive and up-to-date directory of doctors accepting new patients, have become an invaluable tool for those seeking family physicians. Free for all Canadians, the directory is a searchable listing of physicians, by community, allowing patients to make direct contact with doctor's offices and clinics in order to obtain more information, or request an appointment.

Free listings such as these allow those who have the greatest trouble finding doctors to take their healthcare into their own hands -- new immigrants, those who have moved or have relocated through work, and those relocated to work in Canada from abroad, and those in under-serviced communities who are seeking answers.

The face of Canadian health care is changing and so must the way we as citizens approach our health care needs. We need to invest the time and effort in order to ensure that we are obtaining the best possible health care for ourselves and our families -- ignorance and apathy are no longer options.

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