NEW GLASGOW – The Aberdeen Walk-In Clinic will be suspending operations between Aug. 5 and Sept. 17 while the doctors who own the clinic take some time to think about the future.
Doctors Chris Elliott and Tom Park own the clinic, which provided approximately 10,000 patient visits in 2017.
“We didn’t do this without a lot of thought and really don’t want to do this, but our backs are against the wall,” Elliott said in an interview with The News.
Elliott and Park have drafted a letter to the residents of Pictou County in which they explain the circumstances that have led to this temporary closure – including the fact that one of their regular doctors is leaving in August.
Another factor is the decision by the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness and MSI to exclude walk-in clinics from the enhanced fee model applied to other primary care provider office visits in the province. This has a negative impact on their recruitment efforts for the clinic, he explained.
Elliott said the role of the walk-in clinic has changed dramatically over the years. In the past, the walk-in was used largely by people who had family doctors but couldn’t get in to see them during their regular office hours.
But today the situation is much different. With an increasing number of people in Pictou County without a family doctor, Elliott said they’ve found themselves becoming the primary care provider for many people, doing everything from booking X-rays to monitoring chronic conditions such as diabetes or hypertension.
“We are providing comprehensive long-term care,” Elliott said.
According to data on the Nova Scotia Health website the number of people on the wait list for a family doctor in the Northern Zone (made up of Colchester, Cumberland and Pictou County) increased from 5,972 on June 1, 2018 to 6,473 as of July 1, 2018.
While he realizes having walk-in clinics provide primary care isn’t an ideal situation, Elliott believes they’ve filled a critical need in the county and thinks the work they do should be recognized as primary care by the province and MSI.
“It’s a lot better than plugging up the ER department,” he said.
If down the road that role of walk in clinics is no longer necessary because the province has another plan in place and working, he said they have no problem adjusting to that. But for now if they are going to be providing primary care, he believes they should be recognized for that.
In response to questions from The News, media relations advisor for the Department of Health and Wellness Tracy Barron provided a written response saying that government and Nova Scotia Health Authority are talking to the physicians involved to understand their concerns and look at possible solutions for the community.
“The increases announced by government and Doctors Nova Scotia in March recognize the additional time and effort required to provide comprehensive primary health care for patients with chronic disease, and others who might benefit from a longer visit and an ongoing relationship,” she wrote. “The higher fees also reflect the time required for a practice to manage relationships with patients and the desire to reduce the wait list for primary care.”
She stated that the focus of the incentive is on continuous and comprehensive primary care and attaching patients to a practice.
“Although walk-ins perform a valuable service, they are more transactional in nature, and patients are not attached to the clinic.”
While the walk-in fees were not included in the March increase in payments to doctors providing primary care, Barron said that government has not reduced the value of walk-in clinic visit fees.
“In fact, the rates for walk ins is exactly what was agreed to in the most recent master agreement,” she stated.
But Elliott sees it differently.
“What they’re doing is devaluing the way we’re working,” he said.
He said there is no incentive for local doctors to see patients at the walk-in if they will be paid more to do the same visit in their office, which makes it hard to recruit a doctor to work in the clinic. The walk-in clinic is open weekends and evenings, which doctors are doing in addition to their regular office hours.
“The loser in this is the tax payer of Nova Scotia,” said Elliott, who worries that people will be forced to turn to the Aberdeen Hospital emergency department if the clinic were to remain closed.
Elliott hopes it doesn’t come to that. During the period they are suspending operation, they will be working with the department of health and wellness, MSI and local MLAs to come up with a solution.
“We’re reaching out to them and explaining to them where we’re at,” he said.
He hopes that the public will realize that this isn’t about money, but rather providing a sustainable future for the clinic.
“I hope that people see the fact it’s a valuable service and give some support by contacting their elected representatives.”
He apologized for any inconvenience this may cause to the people who use their clinic.
Pictou Centre MLA Pat Dunn said it’s frustrating to see what’s happening with the Aberdeen Walk-In Clinic and believes the problem has a lot to do with the province viewing all such clinics the same.
“It seems like they want to operate all clinics across the province in the same way, shape and form and they can’t do that,” he said. “I know clinics in Halifax where they see patients but there’s no follow-up. I know for a fact here in New Glasgow at the Aberdeen clinic there is a follow-up with patients. There are referrals.”
Dunn said he believes strongly that the doctors working at the Aberdeen clinic should be paid the same as doctors who see patients in their office.
“To me, it’s absolutely insulting to them and a lack of respect for what they’re doing,” he said, referencing how they fill a need caused by the shortage of doctors.
The number of people who use the walk-in clinic in New Glasgow is enormous, Dunn added.
“If this place were to permanently close, it would be somewhat disastrous.”