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6 Habits of Highly Effective Family Doctors

Being a family doctor is very rewarding and also very challenging. Family doctors treat terminally ill patients, deliver bad news, and work in a constantly changing environment. On the flip side, they deliver babies, help people improve their lives, and are always learning new things.

This career choice isn’t for everyone but there are many tactics that can help maximize a doctor’s clinical abilities.

As the professional association that represents all doctors in Nova Scotia, we’ve had the pleasure of working with thousands of family doctors and observing the unique qualities and strategies that make many family doctors highly effective and efficient care providers.

Here are six habits of highly effective and successful family doctors.

1. Efficient patient scheduling

Timely access is rated by patients as one of the most important elements of primary care. No one wants to wait to see their family doctor when they’re not feeling well. Managing a large patient base while trying to reduce wait times and accommodate urgent cases can be a stressful daily routine.

Successful family doctors know this and have developed strategies to better manage their scheduling practices. For example, some doctors have employed same day access, while others offer flexible office hours so patients can book appointments before and after work.

Dr. Steven MacDougall has transformed his clinical practice and is improving patient care with same-day appointments and house calls. A family doctor in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Dr. MacDougall has made visits to the doctor more convenient for roughly 3,000 patients in his practice.

The decision to reform his practice stemmed from the chronic backlog in the emergency room of Cape Breton Regional Hospital – a condition common in many centres across the province.

“Many people go to the emergency room when they can’t see a doctor when they need to,” said Dr. MacDougall. “I believe my patients should be seen when and where they want.”

This patient-centred approach allows patients to call the clinic and book appointments when they want, even for later the same day. The clinic also makes house calls to patients who have difficulty making trips to the office.

“Prior to this system my patients had to wait three weeks to see me. Now it’s virtually same day so I deal with health issues as they arise,” said Dr. MacDougall.

2. Maximize technology

Technology is making it easier to provide quality health care. Family practices that incorporate electronic medical records, video conferencing and communicate with patients through new technologies are better positioned for success. Some doctors are even using technology to consult with patients and other health-care providers who are in remote areas.

3. Work collaboratively with other providers

Highly effective family doctors know that good care requires team work.

Family doctors have a unique clinical skill set and are best positioned to diagnose and treat complex cases. However, there are other providers who can help patients with less complex issues, such as Pap testing, measuring blood pressure, and nutrition counselling. Family doctors should always be involved in the management of their patients care but they can also rely on others to provide support. Successful family doctors often try to find ways to collaborate with other providers.

Family medicine has allowed Dr. Heather Johnson to study and practice within a large scope of health care and in collaboration with a number of different health care professionals, becoming an expert in dealing with a wide variety of medical concerns every day.

For Dr. Johnson, this position is amongst a strong team of health care professionals who work together every day to educate, detect and manage chronic disease in additional to many other health concerns.

“Our family practice is made up of a team of four doctors and one nurse practitioner,” she said. “And they’re incredible to work with.”

With an environment that embraces and thrives off of the collaborative and dynamic efforts of a health care team, Dr. Johnson believes her patients receive a unique, well rounded and exceptional health care experience.

“Working closely every day with these talented health care professionals allows me to engage in discussion and learn new things all the time,” she said.

“I’m able to gather three or four different professional opinions on subjects like education, exercise, diet and necessary support programs in a matter of minutes. It’s this kind of atmosphere that allows our patients to continue to feel comfortable and confident in knowing that we are doing everything and anything we can to help them.”

4. Care for themselves, too

Being a doctor is a challenging career path. It requires long hours, is emotionally taxing, and can mean sacrificing other areas of life for the benefit of caring for and improving others’ lives. Successful doctors know that to be great, they need to look after themselves, too. This means having hobbies and making time to enjoy them, taking time off, travelling, and making physical activity a priority in their own life.

With family doctors’ workloads increasing, baby boomers aging, and the challenges of accessing care increasing, it’s more important than ever for doctors to find time to rejuvenate.

5. Understand their patient base

Successful doctors know their patient base.

Every practice is different. Variables can include location of practice, socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicity, and age of patients. Doctors are finding ways to provide care in unique ways such as extended office hours, mobile clinics, home visits and video conferencing.

Dr. Cathy Felderhof has a passion for healing and empowering her patients. This approach to care has been welcomed by her patients in Pictou Landing, many of whom are members of the First Nations community.

A strong proponent of holistic medicine, Dr. Felderhof focuses on the interconnected physical, emotional, and spiritual elements of the body. Patients visit a doctor when they aren’t well and anticipate receiving a prescription. In many cases this is appropriate.

But Dr. Felderhof also introduces her patients to other avenues to wellness.

“While most people are used to receiving a prescription for medication, I would rather focus on a pill-free healing process for my patients,” said Dr. Felderhof.

For ten thousand years, Nova Scotia has been home to the Aboriginal people. Mi’kmaq and First Nations people have enriched the province with their legends, art, music, spirituality, history, and language. However, the First Nations population also experience some of the highest rates of chronic disease in Nova Scotia.

Providing care to this demographic has its challenges, but they’ve taught her how to look at illness through a new lens. Having a better understanding of her patients’ cultural beliefs and traditions gives her a deeper understanding of their health challenges and preference for treatment.

6. Remember why they became a doctor

On the days when there are endless piles of paperwork, long hours, and struggling patients, the most successful doctors take a moment to reflect on why they chose to be a doctor in the first place.

This humbling reminder of their purpose and passion is what takes them from one challenging case to the next. It’s what inspires them to go above and beyond the call of duty every day and what keeps their patients healthy and happy.

Dr. Norah Mogan moved to Liverpool, Nova Scotia with her husband in 2004 and has been practising family medicine at her clinic, Mogan Medical Inc. for the past ten years.

In Dr. Mogan’s eyes, the most important ingredient in patient care is a solid trusting relationship between a patient and their family doctor. For her, practising in a close-knit community adds a sense of ease to creating and nurturing patient relationships.

“What I do is special because I live in a place that gives me the opportunity to carry on continuity of care. If I’ve seen a patient ten times for something, there’s a certain kind of comfort and openness that results because I know them so well and vice versa.”

Dr. Mogan describes herself as lucky. She is not only doing something she is passionate about, but doing it every day, for the people she cares so much for and in a place she’s proud to call home.

“It was never about being a big or small fish. I just knew I wanted to be in a small pond. I love when a patient or their family member drops by the office to say ‘thank you’, or saying hello in the grocery store or when a patient asks about my children – that lets me know that they care for me just as much as I care for them.”

Nova Scotia is home to more than 3,200 physicians who perform more than 28,000 services to patient every day.

The key to their success lies not only in the habits listed above but also in the fact that family doctors are passionate about what they do. They live and breathe their life’s work and they put patient care above all else. They are good listeners, take a holistic approach to care and advocate behind the scenes for system improvements. They are the core of the health care system and we believe every Nova Scotian deserves their own family doctor.

If you love your family doctor tell us why!

Does your doctor embody some of the traits and tactics listed here? Leave us a comment and tell what makes your doctor highly effective.

For more patient stories about doctors who provide exceptional care, check out our interactive story map!