Family doctors are busy folk under ordinary circumstances, but with the COVID-19 pandemic about to arrive here, our Comox Valley family physicians are working harder than ever before.
While the rest of us have been worrying about cancelled spring break plans, grocery shopping, child care, and home schooling, many of the 115 doctors in the Comox Valley Division of Family Practice (DFP) have been involved in radically overhauling the entire local primary healthcare delivery system to prepare to treat an expected wave of COVID patients.
Local family docs are putting in 14- to 16-hour days, seeing their normal volume of patients as well as engaging in after-hours planning meetings to come up with systems and strategies to manage the virus in their own practices and in areas of the hospital that they support. As well, specialist physicians have been working with their hospital colleagues to prepare the hospital, changing the way it operates in days.
They aren’t meeting in person, of course: they’ve adopted new technology, including Slack (a communication app) and Zoom for video conferences. They’re collaborating with Island Health and physicians across the Island, the province and elsewhere in Canada to help navigate the ever-changing logistics of their new reality.
A dedicated COVID ward has been set up at the North Island Hospital Comox Valley, and many family doctors have rearranged their usual schedules in order to staff this ward. There’s a great deal of cooperation and coordination happening among the Valley’s medical clinics as they work on solutions for worst-case questions like: How will we see patients with chronic health conditions not related to the virus? How will we ensure care for those without a family doctor? How will we manage if many doctors get infected and can’t work? Who will be on call for labour and delivery?, and so on.
“It’s absolutely amazing to see how our colleagues are stepping forward,” says Dr. Adam Thompson, the physician leading the DFP’s COVID Response Team. For example, in some local practices staff have needed to self-isolate, which affected the clinics’ ability to operate, but within hours other clinics stepped in to share staff.
“There’s an enormous system change underway,” says Thompson. “This kind of thing normally takes years to implement; we’re getting it done in days to weeks.”
If you’ve tried to make an appointment in the last week to see your doctor, you’ll already be aware of one of the major changes: in-clinic visits have been strictly curtailed. Instead, family doctors have switched to phone or video appointments for most patients. Thompson says he has been consulting by phone, video, text (pictures and words) and email with his patients.
This helps to limit potential patient cross-infection and also helps to protect healthcare workers and staff (in Italy, most physician deaths were family doctors). The Division is also developing systems and supports to prevent and treat the psychological stress that healthcare workers are likely to suffer during a pandemic. The goal is to minimize disruption to patients in this unusual time and—as always—to provide the best care possible to the community.
In return, our family doctors and other health-care professionals want us all to do our part to help them fight the virus. Continue with social distancing, stay home whenever possible, self-isolate if you feel unwell, and if you need medical care, call your own family doctor or clinic for advice. You can also use the self-diagnosis tool at https://bc.thrive.health/covid19. If you’re having severe shortness of breath or chest pain, call 911 or go to the emergency department.
With the information constantly evolving, collaboration is going to be the key to getting through whatever situation is to come. Fortunately, as Thompson says, our health-care providers are facing the coronavirus together. “I’ve been amazed at how hard everyone is working to prepare for our wave of infections,” he says. “Our health authority and specialist colleagues are also working tirelessly for our community. EVERYONE in healthcare is working to the very best of their ability in an uncertain time.”
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