How to find a family doctor

If you're one of the millions of Canadians searching for a physician, we have an Rx for you

1. Keep it in the family
A GP is valuable for more than just a yearly checkup. “Everyone should have a physician to oversee long-term health and make sure you’re doing what you can to prevent illness,” says Sarah Kredentser, president of the College of Family Physicians of Canada. But 16 percent of Canadians don’t have a doctor, and the shortage isn’t getting any better: The National Physician Survey reports that 58 percent of docs are either limiting the number of new patients they see or not taking any at all. Start by asking your sister-in-law, your aunt Maude, your cousin Larry; GPs will often squeeze in their patients’ relatives. “I consider myself a family doctor, and that means every member,” says Holly Zwicker, a GP in St. Margaret’s Bay, N.S. “It’s fun to see every generation.”

2. Flip your Rolodex
Once you’ve exhausted your family tree, reach out to friends and co-workers. The more personal your referral, the better the odds that the doc will squeeze you in, so ask your buddies to talk you up at their checkups. And keep in mind that while some physicians now interview potential patients before accepting them, they shouldn’t be screening for health problems or discriminating against certain groups. “A doctor might want to get to know you, or find out if your needs are compatible with their skills and practice,” Kredentser says. Be clear about your expectations, and ask for the GP’s criteria for accepting patients.

3. Get on the lists
Regional health authorities across Canada keep internet databases of physicians who are accepting new patients; some also offer waiting lists. And in February, Ontario launched an innovative service called Health Care Connect that does the searching for you. In its first five months, the program referred more than 7,300 patients. Some hospitals and walk-in clinics keep lists of physicians with openings, too. Just be cautious of relying solely on ranking websites, such as, says Zwicker. The sites are anonymous, and one patient’s disagreeable experience might not be universal. “The best research is usually word of mouth,” she says. A good reputation will travel through a community, so ask around.

4. Be flexible
Look outside your neighbourhood and your comfort zone. You might prefer a female doctor or an older practitioner, but try to disregard age and gender. A good physician is knowledgeable and pleasant, Kredentser says. “Beyond that, the patient needs to be open-minded.” You don’t have to stick with a doctor you don’t like, but Kredentser says it might be worth trying to work it out first. “A relationship between a doctor and patient develops over time,” she says.

5. Consider the alternatives
Nurse practitioners (NPs) can also do physicals, prescribe some medications, order diagnostic tests and even perform minor invasive procedures, such as skin biopsies and suturing. “They don’t just handle sore throats,” says Donna Alden-Bugden, who runs, a website for nurse practitioners. Winnipeg is home to one NP-led clinic, and in Ontario, the first of 25 planned clinics opened in 2007. Alden-Bugden expects other provinces to follow suit. To find an NP, call your province’s college of registered nurses or a regional health authority. Many provinces also offer free, 24-hour health hotlines staffed by RNs. The phone-in services can’t give diagnoses or prescriptions, but they can provide advice and connect you with resources in your area. Consider naturopathic doctors, too, especially if you have extended health coverage. They undergo extensive training and perform many of the same procedures as physicians, including Pap smears and yearly physicals. In some provinces, NDs can order labs and perform gynecological exams, and in British Columbia, new legislation also allows NDs to prescribe some medications and perform minor surgeries.

6. Make a walk-in work
If you’re still searching, a walk-in might be your only option. Make the best of it by seeing the same on-call doctor each time. “Phone to find out when they’re in, and try to work with their schedule,” Kredentser suggests. Walk-in doctors often go on to open their own practices, so you could get lucky. A smaller walk-in may also offer more personalized care. The Canadian Health Services Research Foundation says the best clinics are those that have fewer than 10 physicians and established links with specialists and other health-care providers.