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Local doctors see patients, even if they don't have a health card (2 photos)

The team would be making more money elsewhere, but running the weekly clinics at the Neighbourhood Resource Centre is more rewarding

One evening, a homeless man came into the Neighbourhood Resource Centre’s free Thursday walk-in clinic and it became evident during an examination that he had cancer.

The patient reluctantly agreed to go to the hospital for a gastroscopy. But being homeless and without a phone, once he left the clinic it was difficult arranging to get him to an appointment.

Dr. Alan McLean then utilized a resource most other doctors can’t.

He talked to a police officer and a housing social worker — who both worked at the NRC — and the two of them tracked down the homeless man in town and arranged a ride for him to get to the hospital.

“It’s the response of the people here," said McLean, talking about the diverse organizations that are available at the resource centre. "People don’t say, 'It’s not my job.' They really care for the people."

The homeless man that had cancer actually died, but McLean said that at the end, the man was thankful for the care and attention he was receiving after a very hard life. 

“The man found dignity and optimism. We didn’t save his life but (seeing his relief) gave us some hope for the future,” said McLean

The resource centre is a hub for multiple agencies and this makes the care received unique for patients, said McLean.

“I had one guy came in complaining he couldn’t sleep, and (at the centre we) had a community mental health worker. I talked about medication and his mental health worker said, ‘You know the reason you can’t sleep is because you woke up and had a rat on your chest and so it makes you anxious to go to sleep.' He has a housing problem – not a need for medication. He has a house infested with rats. The fact that I can work with people and see the full picture rather than just writing them a prescription for a sleeping pill makes me think that I am doing more good for them than I would otherwise,” he said.

The free Thursday medical clinic has been running for the last three years, providing a range of medical and other services to the most at-risk people in the Sault, even if they don’t have a health card.

The doctors that run the clinics, from a purely business stand point, are sacrificing time and money to be there.

When someone comes in without a valid OHIP number, or when all sorts of extra running around is required, these doctors don't get paid, but they keep coming back week after week serving anyone they can and going above and beyond.

“This is the best work,” said McLean, who also runs a family practice. “When I come in here, I feel like I am helping the majority of patients. I love my family practice but (there) I might see someone with high blood pressure and you have to treat 300 of them to actually help one person. There is not a day that I go out of here that I haven’t felt really clear that there is someone that I really helped today. You come home at the end of the day here and you feel tired, but you also feel like you really accomplished something. That’s important.”

McLean works for Superior Health Team as does Dr. Sara White, the doctor that rotates clinic hours with him every other Thursday.

McLean said around 10-20 per cent of the patients he sees at the Neighbourhood Resource Centre don’t have health cards and most have "a lot of poor social determinants of health."

“Low income and lots of mental health and addiction problems. With those come a lot of health problems. A lot of diabetes, emphysema and heart disease (are all) fairly common,” he said.

The Neighbourhood Resource Centre began in 2014 and has become a hub for over 20 social organizations that have scheduled hours throughout the week.

Sault Ste. Marie Police Service has an officer stationed there full time, and the John Howard Society and Children’s Aid Society are there most days of the week as well.

On any day, these organizations could work with any number of others that might come in, such as Ontario Works, Algoma Family Services, Algoma Public Health, or even the Algoma District School Board’s continuing education program.

The ability for these agencies to be right down the street from those who need the service, and to be able to coordinate with each other is perhaps the biggest strength of the centre.

With this setup, instead of tackling a single surface problem in a person’s life, the centre hopes to get closer to looking at the bigger picture and get to the root of problems.

Even if they do have a health card, some of the clients that McLean sees don’t have transportation, or even a phone, which makes getting to a hospital let alone a family practitioner, difficult.

“We prefer people, if they have a family doctor that they go to the family doctor — we’re not trying to duplicate those services (but) we did a survey before we started (to) identify the lack of primary care and most of them don’t have transport. They used to get primary care at the hospital. They don’t have cars, can't afford taxis, busses stop running at 11 p.m. We try to help out with that and bring it to them instead of them trying to come to us,” he said.

The walk-in clinic is every Thursday from 2-7 p.m. and people line up two hours ahead of time to make sure they get one of the 25 slots available. Many are excited to see McLean, who’s very personable.

It wasn’t always like that.

“It took a while to build up trust with people in the community. The first two weeks we were here, we actually had zero patients but they started trickling in. Part of that is the police presence – someone with addiction problems, do they really want to go where there is a police presence? (However) we’ve been gifted that the police officers stationed here have extremely progressive mindsets in terms of, they really want to help the community. They aren’t down here just to arrest people. They’re here to try and help the community develop, which has been really refreshing, seeing that attitude amongst the police,” he said.