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FPs sought to help nomadic military families get medical care

Canada’s family physicians are stepping in to help the families of Canadian military personnel arrange primary care when they move to new bases, but the Canadian Forces (CF) says more are needed.

While many Canadians have a hard time finding a family doctor, the military says the families of CF personnel face a unique problem because of the nomadic nature of military careers. In 2013, then-CF ombudsman Pierre Daigle reported that military families are far less likely to have a family physician (FP) than other Canadians because they move three times more often. The ombudsman noted that some families simply “bounce” from one physician waiting list to another because of their postings, “rarely making it to the top” before it’s time to move again.

The military has responded by encouraging family physicians – via organizations such as the CMA – to consider opening their practices to these families. More than 50 FPs in four provinces have responded so far since 2012.

“I always say yes to these patients, even though my practice is otherwise closed,” says Dr. Nancy McFadden of Comox, BC, a Vancouver Island community that is home to a major air force base. “I felt it was important to provide this service because it is a significant stressor for military families to be posted and face the additional worry that family members will not have longitudinal medical care.”

The only other options for new arrivals in Comox are two walk-in clinics and the local emergency room.

Recent survey results indicate that access to primary care is a major concern within the CF, with 23.8% of spouses/partners reporting that they do not have a primary care physician, compared with about 15% of the general population. The survey also found that medical care is the most frequently reported service – 44.4% of respondents – that CF spouses found to be “extremely difficult” to re-establish upon moving to a new posting.

This does not surprise CMA President Chris Simpson. “Given that more than four million Canadians do not have a family physician, it is easy to see that military families may have a hard time finding primary care, especially when they have to do it all over again every three or four years,” he said.

Simpson praised recent initiatives such as Operation Family Doc, launched by the Academy of Medicine Ottawa in 2012 in collaboration with the Military Family Resource Centre — National Capital Region (NCR). Coordinator Robyn Curry said the program connects military families, as well as retiring personnel or those leaving the Forces, with physicians in 64 locations across the NCR.

Since Operation Family Doc was initiated, 2,000 patients have been connected with FPs. She said the program is having a positive impact on military families and “is a credit to our local physicians.”

Although the CF’s 300 uniformed medical officers do not provide care for the families of military personnel, some retired officers are now doing so. Dr. Tarek Sardana, who is practising in the Ottawa area after completing a 20-year air force career, has recently taken on 50 patients from military families. He expects there will soon be more because “posting season is coming.”

Sardana said FPs who take on these patients help reduce families’ stress. “As a bonus, you’ll have a grateful group of patients.”

McFadden encourages other physicians to get involved. “Take these patients on,” she says. “They are typically young families, and their medical status is good. It is not a major commitment, and it gives you a chance to meet people from all parts of Canada. At the same time, you are providing a valuable service to our military personnel.”

Interested physicians can contact the CF’s Family Information Line (800-866-4546) or the nearest Military Family Resource Centre .

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