Walking into emergency

Doctor Ken Quong started his day in the Whitehorse hospital's emergency room at 8 a.m. Thursday morning. By 11 a.m., he had already seen about 15 patients, or five an hour.

Doctor Ken Quong started his day in the Whitehorse hospital’s emergency room at 8 a.m. Thursday morning.

By 11 a.m., he had already seen about 15 patients, or five an hour.

For the last two months, the number of people coming into the emergency has been as high as when the H1N1 flu pandemic hit, he said.

“The numbers are peaked out right now,” he said. “It’s impressive to me, the number of people that we’re seeing through here.”

Quong’s shift won’t end until 1 p.m.

And starting in July, he won’t get off until 2 p.m.

But that’s a good thing, he said.

The hospital’s emergency room is switching to a two-track system. The current doctor shifts will extend and an entirely new nine-hour shift for an additional doctor will be added.

In essence, people are being asked to treat the ER as a walk-in clinic, said Quong.

The numbers are higher than they usually get in the summers, with incoming tourists and miners.

Combined with a population increase, the higher number of emergency room patients – who do not have a family doctor – are a direct result of the closure of walk-in clinics in town.

In the last two months, five Whitehorse doctors have left, said Pat Living from the Department of Health and Social Services.

These doctors were almost exclusively foreign doctors, working in the territory thanks to a special licence program put in over a decade ago to help bring doctors to the territory. They were also almost exclusively the doctors who ran walk-in clinics in town.

But there was less than a 10 per cent return on the special licence program, said Quong. Either the foreign doctors would fail the test they needed to take after five years to continue working in Canada, or they would pass the test and move out of the territory to work somewhere else in the country.

“We, as a medical community, have recognized that this was going to become a problem and has become a problem,” said Quong.

The two-track emergency room is the best and quickest solution for the summer, but “it is not a long-term solution,” he said.

Most bigger cities already have a two-track system in their hospitals, Quong said, explaining that it helps wait times to have a doctor seeing people with less serious problems, while the rest of the ER takes care of urgent and more serious cases. The difference is that most people in those cities still have family doctors.

Three more family doctors will be setting up shop in the territory by fall.

All three are the result of another recruitment method, said Quong.

Partnerships between the Yukon government and the universities of Calgary, Alberta and British Columbia offer the territory as a tempting place for new doctors to serve their residency. All three doctors opening their doors in Whitehorse this fall are returning from residencies spent in Yukon, said Quong.

But Quong isn’t sure the new physicians will absorb all the people not being served right now.

While recognizing there will always be people who cannot form a relationship with a family doctor and that the new system will be re-evaluated monthly, Quong delivered a quick and sturdy “yes” when asked if the two-track system could continue past the summer.

Another doctor will be added to the ER soon, said Quong.

“This model, probably, is coming here anyways because of the volume that we see through here,” he said.

Each day, about 150 patients are not being seen because of the walk-in clinic closures, he said.

But establishing a new walk-in clinic is not the answer, said Quong.

There are simply not enough doctors to go around, he said.

Currently there are around 60 doctors working in the territory. Only one third of them pull shifts in the emergency room.

“What we need, and what all of us want, are more, full-spectrum doctors,” he said. “That serves the public 100 times better than a walk-in clinic. The future is to recruit more family doctors.”

The new two-track system at Whitehorse General’s emergency room starts at the beginning of July and runs from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at