The Restigouche region’s only walk-in medical clinic will be replaced by a new service aimed at helping thousands of residents without a primary care provider.
The Vitalité Health Network announced the new access service Monday, which allows patients to make scheduled appointments with a nurse practitioner or family doctor by calling 811. It will focus specifically on ‘orphan patients,’ a term for those without an assigned provider.
In response to a staffing shortage, the walk-in clinic at the St. Joseph Community Health Centre in Dalhousie closed at the end of January. The move prompted residents to protest and call on the health network to improve recruitment efforts.
Shelley Robichaud, Vitalité’s director of primary health care, said it was extremely challenging to recruit for the walk-in clinic, because many doctors and nurse practitioners prefer to work in a situation where they can provide continuity of care. The new service will allow for that.
“We are going to transfer all the physicians to the collaborative practice that offers family medicine in the same building,” Robichaud said. “So we can better take charge of the orphan people who do not have a family doctor or nurse practitioner assigned.”
The health network plans to hire three nurse practitioners for the new service over the course of this year.
Vacancies in primary care
During the pandemic, the former clinic began operating under an appointment-only model. It was open to anyone, whether or not they had a primary care provider.
At the time of the clinic’s closure, only two out of the six physician positions were filled. Attempts to hire a nurse practitioner to help bridge that gap were unsuccessful. The Restigouche region has 13 vacancies for primary care positions as of right now.
The St. Joseph Health Centre’s collaborative practice serves more than 4,000 patients for regular primary care. It currently has two physicians and five nurse practitioners who will help take on some of the people without doctors, in addition to their regular patients.
Robichaud said the new service follows best practices in shifting away from walk-in care, and will help patients eventually find a permanent health provided.
“It’s important for everyone to have their primary care provider, someone who knows them well, will follow them, have access to their file, know their history. A walk in clinic does not offer that,” she told Information Morning Moncton.
Permanent solution still needed
Dalhousie Mayor Normand Pelletier said the service will help fill the void left by the clinic’s closure and serve as a short-term solution for eligible patients.
“It’s going to take some of the burden and some of the pressure off society knowing that those 3,000 citizens that don’t have a family doctor now will hopefully have somebody within the near future,” he said.
Without the walk-in clinic, residents have turned to the emergency room in Campbellton or another clinic an hour south in Bathurst. It created challenges for renewing prescriptions.
Patients without doctors in Campbellton and Belledune will also be able to access nurse practitioners in their own communities.
Pelletier said he’d still like to see the walk-in clinic reopen in the future if the need is there.
“If people are rushing to the emergency ward in Campbellton or a paid walk-in clinic in my neighbouring municipality we didn’t really solve the problem,” he said. “We’re trying to put a band-aid on a very crucial situation.”