How family medicine has changed on P.E.I. since COVID hit

You don’t have to spend much time at Dr. Kristy Newson’s office in Charlottetown to discover COVID-19 has changed the way she and her staff do their jobs. 

For one, the family doctor’s waiting room is completely empty, and the door locked. 

“We try not to fill up our waiting rooms just to avoid patients spreading infections,” said Newson, who also serves as president of the P.E.I. College of Family Physicians. 

“So we ask them to remain in their car until their appointment time. We then call down to them and they come right into the office. And between each patient, we have to disinfect and clean the rooms completely before the next patient can be seen.”

That means she’s not able to see as many patients at her office throughout the day — at least not without extending her hours.

Patients of some family physicians are now being instructed to wait in their vehicles for their appointment, as some waiting rooms like this one are off-limits. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

While Newson said some family physicians are doing just that, she and many others have turned to telephones and web cameras, as a way to squeeze in more patients. 

“Between each [in-person] patient I do some telemedicine appointments, just to give my staff the chance to clean the rooms,” said Newson.  

“We try to triage them over the phone, and if it’s a concern that could be addressed via telemedicine or virtual care, the patient would be offered that style of appointment. If they prefer to see us in person, or if we feel it’s something that needs a physical exam, then we would book them a regular routine visit in our office.”

Doctors seeing just as many patients

According to Health PEI, about 30 per cent of care provided by Island family physicians is now virtual or over the phone. 

Newson maintains with the move to more virtual appointments, there’s been minimal impact on the quality and speed of care family physicians can provide. 

“The perception may be that physicians aren’t seeing as many patients. But truly, it’s more a change in the type of appointments we’re able to offer,” said Newson.

“I wouldn’t say the wait times for urgent or semi-urgent appointments are any longer at this stage. Possibly for non-urgent, annual checkups, those sorts of things, those things have probably been pushed several months down the road.”

Rooms have to be cleaned between appointments, which lowers the number of patients family physicians are able to see in person each day, unless they extend their hours. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Another change for family physicians since the start of the pandemic — they’ve stopped seeing patients with coughs, fevers and sore throats. 

They’re now directed to the cough and fever clinics in Charlottetown and Summerside. 

“That’s just to prevent the spread of infectious disease at family medicine offices,” said Newson.

“At the cough and fever clinics, they’re able to provide separate exits and entrances for the patients, patients are able to be more physically distanced, and the physician there is wearing full PPE.”

‘Virtual care is likely the future’

While Newson expects those clinics will shut down whenever the pandemic ends, she’s hoping virtual care is here to stay. 

She said that option has proven convenient for many patients. 

“Not having to take a day off work to come visit their family doctor, if they’re able to do that on their lunch break from their office, it just makes access that much easier,” she said. 

“Virtual care is likely the future of health care, and I’d like to see those advancements in health care continue, along with continuing to see patients in person, and developing those relationships with families. That’s what family medicine is all about.”

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