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CFPC re-assesses COVID-19’s toll on family doctors one year after initial survey

In May 2020, the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC) surveyed its members to learn how the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting them, their practices, and how they care for their patients.

One year later, the CFPC asked again to gauge the toll that continuing to provide care during the pandemic — while also fulfilling regular duties to their patients and communities — has taken on family physicians in Canada. Highlights include:

  • 87% are highly concerned about patients’ emotional or mental stress.
  • 60% are highly concerned about health risks due to reduced patient-doctor contact.
  • The rate of burnout among family doctors is three times higher than in 2020.

“Family physicians are reporting more burnout during the pandemic, which threatens access to primary health care at a time when patients need it most,” said Dr. Myles Deutscher, president of the Saskatchewan College of Family Physicians. Physicians who are struggling or in distress can reach out to the SMA’s Physician Health Program or the CMA’s Physician Wellness Hub.

Dr. Deutscher, a Saskatoon family physician, said the pandemic has also reduced patient contact with their family doctors, resulting in lower continuity of care. “This in turn leads to delayed diagnosis and treatment, and an increased burden of illness.”

Family physicians are also increasingly worried about a rising number of patients suffering with mental health concerns and addictions, which is an acute concern in rural Saskatchewan, added Dr. Eben Strydom, a Melfort family physician and president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association.

“The pandemic has exposed gaps in rural mental health and addictions services,” he said. “Patients who need immediate treatment or support often don’t have access to that care or face long waits to see a specialist.”

The CFPC also reported the following findings from the survey:

Family doctors are important providers of front-line, comprehensive, ongoing primary care for patients. It is essential to listen to their concerns, such as:

  • 67% or survey respondents are highly concerned about patients’ use of alcohol and other non-prescription drugs.
  • 54% are highly concerned about reduced in-person interactions with patients.
  • 62% say that virtual care has improved access for patients, but between 40% and 66% also say virtual care worsens their ability to diagnose new patient complaints, provide medical procedures, and manage chronic disease and mental health conditions.

Family doctors are feeling increasingly burnt out. Support is needed for their well-being and to ensure that the people of Canada continue to have access to the critically important care they receive from family doctors.

  • 15% of survey respondents say they’re feeling burnt out, which is a three-fold increase over the 5% who felt burnt out in May 2020.
  • 51% say they’re working beyond their desired capacity, which is in stark contrast to the 76% of family doctors who had reduced their work hours due to fewer patient visits at the start of the pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic family doctors have taken important steps to contain the spread of COVID-19. The 2021 survey shows that:

  • 37% have served in dedicated COVID-19 screening and vaccination centres.
  • 89% are counselling patients about the vaccines and 74% are referring them to vaccination sites.
  • 34% report COVID-19 cases to public health authorities.

When people get COVID-19, family doctors are right there as some of the most important care providers for patients. The new survey results indicate:

  • 49% provide care to non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients—this is incredibly important in keeping ICU spaces open for the most ill COVID-19 patients.
  • 20% provide care to hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
  • 29% have had patients die from COVID-19; too many family doctors have lost patients to COVID-19, but they are there to help families as they grieve the loss of loved ones.

COVID-19 has revealed major inequities in human suffering among vulnerable populations. Family doctors are working to close these gaps:

  • 14% of family physicians provide care to patients with COVID-19 in Indigenous communities.
  • 11% of family physicians provide care to COVID-19 patients who are experiencing homelessness.
  • 27% of family physicians care for patients with COVID-19 in long-term care and other residential facilities . 

A total of 3,409 respondents completed the May 2021 CFPC Members Survey on COVID-19, representing 9% of CFPC members.

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