11/14/2012 01:08 EST | Updated 01/13/2013 05:12 EST

Why Playing Doctor in Fort McMurray Is No Fun


It is the sign I have come to dread in this community. It is the one that has all too often greeted me when I walked into the office of my family doctor, the sign that states: "As of date such-and-such this office will close and Doctor So-and-so will no longer be practicing in Fort McMurray. Please ask for referrals to another family physician." I despise this sign, because it means that my family doctor, an integral part of health care for my family, is leaving yet again. And for me it is a sign I have seen in three offices in this community in the last decade.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have had some stellar doctors here, including the one who is hands-down the best physician I have ever seen, anywhere. He was my hero, and I still rave about him. Sadly he left his practice here to move to Calgary - as did family doctor number two, and, now, family doctor number three is headed off into the sunset, too. And behind them these physicians have left thousands of patients who have to seek out a new family physician, and fundamentally start from scratch.

You know, I don't expect medicine to be like it was for my now-deceased parents. My mother had the same physician for over 20 years, and my father for over 30. I recognize that physicians come and go, move in and move out just like everyone else does. But for me losing three in a decade seems a bit much. To me it creates a continuity of care issue, and my family doesn't even have any serious health issues. For anyone with a serious or chronic illness, or the elderly, losing a family physician is closer to a crisis (my elderly mother went into mourning when her family physician retired, and she never did fully trust the new one, either). When I heard that my most recent physician is leaving, almost before I had a chance to actually get to know him, I thought "Houston, we have a problem".

Why do these physicians leave Fort McMurray? There are a lot of theories, I suppose. Greater opportunities elsewhere, perhaps, or the chance for a different lifestyle. I don't know if money plays into it, but I suspect it does given the cost in this community for things like commercial rent and staff salaries. All I know is that it is a very real problem, and one we need to address - and we are not alone, either.

I've spoken to many rural Albertans who have had similar experiences, having a family physician for just a couple of years before they choose to move on. This leaves the patient having to find another doctor, re-establish a relationship, develop some continuity of care...often to have the new doctor decide to move on, too.

I don't blame my physicians, really. They have every right to move and practice where they choose, and I don't wish to force them to stay here (or other doctors to stay in other rural locations). But I wish I understood how we convince physicians to stay in places like Fort McMurray. I wish I knew how we find ways to make it appealing enough, lucrative enough, and secure enough that they don't want to leave and thus allow patients to have the sort of health care experience my parents did (on his death bed one of my father's final visitors was, in fact, the family physician who cared for him for decades and who had become not just physician, but friend).

While I sort this all out I'm on the hunt for a new family physician. This time, however, I have an initial question, and it isn't if they are taking new patients. It is, instead, if they are taking new patients - and if they have their house up for sale.