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Lack of GPs means patients arrive at urgent care sicker: physician

Okotoks Urgent Care physician says GP shortage has created spillover in the form of later diagnoses and more advanced illnesses.
Dr Troy McKibbin Petition 0697 BWC
Okotoks physician Dr. Troy McKibbin poses in front of the Okotoks Urgent Care Unit on March 12, 2019. (Brent Calver/Western Wheel)

An Okotoks Urgent Care physician says patients are arriving at the facility sicker than ever before. 

Dr. Troy McKibbin, president of the Okotoks Urgent Care Physicians Group, told The Wheel that approximately 70 patients come through the doors of urgent care every day with illnesses of increasing severity. He attributes this to the lack of general practitioners in Okotoks. 

"The biggest challenge right now is that there’s no family physicians in town accepting patients, there’s just not enough family doctors around," he said. 

"They’re the backbone and the bedrock of the healthcare system and unfortunately there aren’t enough and that work is very challenging and not rewarded appropriately for the challenge that it presents and that creates some spillover into urgent care with later diagnosis and more advanced illness as well." 

An average of two patients per day are being transferred to city facilities for further care, he added. 

As urgent care closures and hour reductions have troubled the province throughout 2022, Okotoks Urgent Care has been able to keep its doors open through careful planning and execution by Alberta Health Services and the physicians group, according to McKibbin. 

The facility is currently staffed by 20 doctors, with two more expected to start in early October. McKibbin said an additional day shift was recently added to the schedule to keep up with increased volume that has presented challenges with wait times. 

Some days this summer have seen insufficient coverage of nursing shifts, he added, but the management team has worked hard to hire more casual staff to fill the gaps, which he expects will lessen come fall. 

McKibbin explained that urgent care centres are almost exclusively staffed by family physicians and the state of healthcare in Alberta has made it difficult to recruit and retain new general practitioners. 

Running a family clinic is equivalent to owning a small business and non-existent increases to funding for primary care networks, changes based on inflation and regulated billing codes are part of the problem in attracting new family doctors, he said.

The relationship between the government and healthcare professionals throughout the pandemic didn't help either, the doctor said. 

"The animosity of the provincial government directed to family physicians — all physicians but especially family physicians — has a lot to do with the shortage of family physicians across the province," said McKibbin. "It has made everybody’s life in healthcare much more challenging over the last two years when we didn’t need any extra challenge." 

McKibbin said he is open to having discussions with the Province and Highwood MLA RJ Sigurdson in a bid to improve family physician recruitment and retainment in Okotoks and across Alberta. 

A face-to-face meeting between the physicians group and the MLA has yet to occur despite attempts on the doctors' part, according to McKibbin.

However, if and when that time comes, the doctor said he would emphasize the importance of urgently working to strike a deal between the Province and physicians to provide stability and improve family medicine recruitment.