Things are back to normal, at Burns Lake Medical Clinic, it’s just a new normal.
After COVID-19 caused the shutdown of just about all interpersonal appointments for every sector and profession – and medical facilities weren’t just hard-hit, they were ground zero – it has been a slow return to whatever “business as usual” will look like going forward.
The local clinic has also been affected by changes in the way Northern Health allocates resources.
Another factor is the labour shortage across Canada of just about any profession in the economy, and that shows up especially acutely in the medical sector.
Add in supply chain shortages on goods and services of most descriptions, and you have a recipe for pain the healthcare system.
Dr. Greg Norman said things are still evolving in the post-pandemic aftermath, but patients are welcome and encouraged to have their needs met at the local clinic. What used to temporarily and necessarily be phone-only appointments is now a hybrid scenario that should actually meet more needs than ever before – one of the benefits of the pandemic evolutions.
“I just spent the day, today, seeing lots of people,” Norman said. “It’s probably 50-50, maybe even 60-40, of people actually coming in versus over the phone. That’s the way we’re doing it, now. It’s business as usual, pretty much.”
The phone calls are mostly for people who don’t want to physically come in, or don’t need to attend in person.
“Some things are easier to do over the phone, especially for people way out of town,” he explained. “If somebody just needs the renewal of a prescription and they’re feeling well, that sort of thing is a lot more economically done over the phone, but certainly if someone is sick, it is better to see them in person.”
The provincial billing system allows for over-the-phone appointments, now, but didn’t used to. Norman hopes this advancement continues but he knows there are abuses of this model. It’s his hope these are curtailed but without ending this practice that greatly benefits rural residents.
“I’m a little concerned that some doctors in the city are exploiting it and kind of guiding their practice towards just doing phone calls,” he said. “If you think about it, if that’s all you do, you can sit on the beach in Hawaii and make an income to keep you in your pina coladas. But it’s a cop-out because you can’t do any of the difficult things over the phone, and you’re more inclined to miss things. People up here never come in with just one thing. Seeing people in person usually uncovers other things.”
Which is exactly why, he added, no one should refrain now from coming into the clinic to get a checkup, or have something looked after that may seem minor to you. There are stories of COVID-19 still pushing on our healthcare capacity, and stories of lineups and cancellations in certain sectors of the system, but that is not related to grassroots people attending to their local family doctor consultations.
“You don’t know how insignificant your thing really is. This is it,” Norman cautioned. “That’s kind of our job, to assess if it’s significant or not. You shouldn’t avoid coming in and getting seen because you’re trying to decrease the flow.”
Norman has two fellow family practitioners working with him at the Burns Lake clinic: Dr. Chris Annandale and Dr. Michael Graetz. Graetz has been out of town, but is returning imminently, and, said Norman, “We have a fairly full complement of support staff,” so there is no reason to hesitate the making of your next appointment.
The clinic has attempted to have a nurse on-site, in the past, but that did not succeed even in pre-COVID times, so it is not a high priority now, said Norman. The problem the clinic faced in that regard was losing the nurses to positions at the hospital or other Northern Health facilities rather than their stand-alone site. Now, nurses are one of the most sought-after professionals in the entire system. A clinic like theirs needs intake people, filing and other administrative positions, but not a nurse when the doctors are there for the sake of procedures, prescriptions, and referrals.
“It’s actually the best possible financial deal for the government because we (the doctors at the clinic) have to pay everything, here, all the overhead and staff. We get paid on a fee-for-service, so if we don’t do any appointments, we’re not paid.”