A day in a life of a family physician

Family medicine has been in the news lately, with accounts of a shortage across the country and medical graduates shunning the practice. There are many who think that family medicine is about simple infections, prescription renewals and providing referrals to specialists. Perhaps by sharing the details of a day in a life in family medicine, then my colleagues can either substantiate, educate or commiserate with my experience.

This is a play-by-play of my family medicine clinic day on a random Tuesday this summer.

I arrive at my medical practice at 6:15 a.m. There is a note that the patient washroom has been clogged from use during the walk-in clinic last night. We cannot have that with the patients coming in today – and plumbers are expensive. Wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, I grab a bristle toilet cleaner, multiple rounds of Liquid-Plumr, a very large plunger, and a smell-resistant mask. It’s 6:45 a.m. by the time I am finished. This should have been managed the night before and I will have to have a talk with my staff.

I spend the next 105 minutes reading charts for the patients I am to see this day. I have 42 booked patients from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. with two one-hour breaks at noon and at 4 p.m. I make sure I have the necessary results, see what results are pending, prepare the charts with ongoing action lists, review consultations and so on. I don’t need to do this, and it takes extra time but if I am prepared for patients, the appointments go more smoothly. Asking “What are you here for?” is not efficient. Plus, even when I am prepared, I often get taken down new paths by patients and their families.

In the morning, I try to deal with a slew of daily tasks: messages about prescription renewals; Limited Use codes; early narcotics release; lost requisitions by patients; prescriptions for orthotics and other services covered by insurance; record requests from lawyers, insurance companies, dentists and various therapists; failed referrals to specialists without any guidance; pharmacist’s questions or back-ordered medications; complaints from patients that they want medications that are covered instead of medications that will help their conditions; complaints from patients about long waits; special requests to see a specific specialists; requests from chiropractors, physiotherapists and specialists for various test results; requests from specialists to take out stitches or arrange various testing; redirect referrals; send new referral requests since it’s been a year or specialists are no longer caring for that condition or no longer accepting patients; complaints from parents for impossible mental health support; questions about various naturopathic medications; piles of work-related insurance forms, WSIB forms, MTO forms, EAP forms, VA forms, MOH forms and so on.

This list is incomplete and never ends. And of course, many more similar requests pile on my desk while I try to deal with what I already have.

This will drain my soul

At 8:30 a.m., my senior administrator arrives. She knocks on my door to talk about patients who want to be seen earlier, have specific requests, want me to accept a family member, want to complain about my staff and clinic, discuss the clogged toilet, report that one of my secretaries wants to take a week off, find out that one of my nurses is struggling with burnout and wants to reduce her hours, and so on. We struggle to get through her list.

While we are talking, an unexpected patient starts banging on the door. We ignore it for a while, but she persists. Somehow, she convinces the staff and eventually me to aspirate her traumatic olecranon bursitis and inject it with cortisone and then apply a pressure bandage. This puts us behind by seven minutes for my first patient at 9 a.m.

This is not unusual

I start with a well-controlled diabetic and do the flow sheet. The patient needs all his medications and blood work requisitions for future testing. He has heard about the Libre system, and we discuss it; he wants to do his MTO, but we need to rebook; he needs his eyes checked so a form is produced and as I am ushering him out, he shares an erectile dysfunction issue which we must deal with. So, the first appointment that was to last from 9 a.m. to 9:20 a.m. starts at 9:07 a.m. and ends at 9:30am. I am 10 minutes behind schedule already.

I bring in the 88-year-old lady with osteoporosis failing on bisphosphonates and moving on to denosumab. She is frail and moves slowly. She came with her granddaughter, who is a nurse and wants to review all the bone density tests over the years and the t-spine X-rays. We talk about her compression fractures and her pain when lying down.

I go into my office and find a request to fill out a hearing-aid form that I complete and give to the front staff. A patient in the waiting room calls out for me to see their new baby. I play nice even though I am running behind.

The 9:40 patient starts at 9:55. This 44-year-old female has endometriosis, colitis, spastic bladder, depression, anxiety and sleep issues. She has been off work for a year on long-term disability. She finally saw an OBGYN, and recommended options were discussed. She did her own research. She brought in recommendations from her naturopath and chiropractor. Our appointment was a mix of counselling, correcting false information, guidance, support, discussing insurance needs and, I hope, moving her forward. I don’t know if I actually helped, but I do know we ended at 10:30 a.m.

Now I am 30 minutes behind. I go on to a 78-year-old diabetic with severe stasis ulcers (needing home nursing care) and a total left hip replacement; then a 2-month-old baby needing a Rourke and vaccinations with a first-time mom who is struggling with baby blues, not postpartum depression (thank goodness); then an 85-year-old who needs a health-and-medication review (hopefully deprescribing), is considering extra vaccinations, and a MoCA. This takes time. She has come with her two sons and they want to talk about competency and whether she should go into a home. She was unwilling. It is now noon and I am an hour behind. No lunch again!

Will I finish the last 6 people before my 1 p.m. patient? Why am I so nice?

The day progresses busily: a skin biopsy; multiple joint injections; a travel medicine consult with a family going to Nigeria; a suspect chronic Lyme patient; a schizophrenic unwilling to take his antipsychotic medications; a corneal abrasion; a patient with poorly controlled COPD and an unwillingness to stop smoking; an autistic young adult threatening his parents with violence; a sports medicine consult; a palliative care patient requiring CHF self-prescribing support; an obese patient with back problems wanting surgery but unwilling to do home exercises or lose weight; a chronically anxious patient with IBS wanting to stay off of work longer; and so on. Three patients did not show despite two reminders for each of them.

At 3 p.m., a patient comes in yelling at the staff to see me. It seems he ran out of his blood pressure medications months earlier. The pharmacist had renewed it three times for a month each time (a $15 charge each time, robbery he says) and told him to book an appointment with each renewal. He did not. And now he wants a renewal right away and is unwilling to book an appointment or wait to be seen at 8 p.m. at the end of walk-in clinic. He threatens to complain to the CPSO. He leaves me his number to call him.

I finally get to go to the washroom at 4:30 p.m. and then grab a late lunch/early supper. I managed to finish charts on half of my patients seen that day between 9-4:30 by the 5 p.m. evening clinic start. We have 12 booked patients and a few call-ins that need simple things (thank goodness). The staff leaves at 8 p.m. They have worked hard and dealt with many complaints, excessive demands and high expectations. I finish with patients at 8:45. I manage to deal with 10 per cent of my messages and complete some paperwork. I have about 20 charts to finish off so I stay until 9:30 to finish them off. The remaining 90 per cent of paperwork will have to wait until tomorrow.

My point: family medicine is challenging and complex

I hope that specialists read this and offer a day in the life of their medical lives, so we all understand that medicine is challenging and complex. We all work very hard and pointing fingers at each other will accomplish nothing.

The comments section is closed.

  • Mary Machamer says:

    An excellent piece! Describes my experience of office practice, though I am much less efficient and saw many fewer patients per day. I retired on March 31 this year, in part due to the ongoing struggle to keep up with everything, on all fronts.
    Thank you, Dr ABdulla.

  • Donna Mahoney says:

    Yes. This is classic. My day to a tee! I cut back my morning numbers to fit in a lunch hour. I work at least 3 hours after staff are gone and rooms are empty just on renewals, internal messages and referrals (why does EVERY patient need a referral or a test of some kind these days?) I get up an hour earlier now to fill in the FORMS but they still manage to pile up to occupy my weekends. The INBOX piles up with DATA (and DUPLICATES). Last weekend I spent 15 hours on the inbox and I wasn’t even close to done. All these extra hours are UNPAID (I am no longer in a FHO because my 2 associates quit Family Practice). What other profession does this? I can’t wait to retire, it will be as soon as I can. Leaving a job I once loved because I can’t afford to do this job. I’m actually paying for Ontarioans healthcare out of MY pocket, and it has corroded my family’s health.

  • Teela says:

    WOW! This is so eye opening and honestly I tip my hat to you for doing this day in and day out. It sounds, frankly, gruelling but 100% essential to keep society afloat.

  • TJPAS says:

    A Day in a Life of a Family Physician
    Alykhan Sadrudin Abdulla wrote on Nov 13 04:48 PM ET

    Is this a good representation of your family medicine practice?

    110% (the extra 10% for Plumbing Duties!) Yes–it WAS; It Certainly sounds like you took over MY practice (even though you didn’t); So many out there are trying so hard to do it all, and please everyone, at their own mental and physical expense… We get praise and appreciation individually from (some) patients, and no respect from others, (also the same ones who demand the most!) but sadly as a GROUP/’Specialty’ of Family Doctors/Primary Care Physicians, we just do not seem to get the same level of Respect and Appreciation from Specialist Colleagues and/or the Government … and now the longterm effects are beginning to show with burnout/exodus and (early) Retirement for those lucky enough to do so! I am now thankfully Retired at 60 yr age (being fortunate enough to find a Physician and Nurse Practitioner to take over my practice). I wish them and you well, and all the best.
    The only suggestion I have for you (in hindsight–would have helped me also) is set BOUNDARIES for those who continue to take advantage of your kindness, good nature and drive to “do it all for everyone” (which can’t be done!)

  • D. LEE says:

    Not sure if this is an account of one of your days (if so, I do feel for you!), or a composite of the worse. I’ve been in family practice for over 4 decades (in an urban centre), and have certainly experienced everything you have reported, but not all in one day! I agree that perhaps you may be too generous of your time and availability, and need to set some limits. Do you really need over an hour every morning to look over your upcoming appointments? Does your record-keeping system not allow you to summarize your patient at a glance, while you’re in the room?
    Please don’t take this as belittling what you go through. We have all experienced these things, and can certainly sympathize/empathize with you.

  • Lisa says:

    Thank you so much for this rather chilling insight in to a world I only see from the other side of your desk. Frankly it’s shocking that these conditions are allowed and, as I understand it, so relatively poorly remunerated. You have my admiration.

    • Alykhan Abdulla says:

      We all struggle together. It’s time to understand and work at solutions together.

  • Charles Copeland says:

    Thank you for demonstrating to the public what a family practice is really like. One thing not mentioned was that half that mound of paper work is unpaid work and the portion that is, is extremely underpaid in comparison to other professionals such as lawyers , accountants etc .
    No wonder there is a critical shortage of doctors practicing family medicine. Under normal economic conditions when there is a shortage of goods or services prices go up to increase supply, not in this case. Here, since price is not allowed to rise , the service simply disappears. This is exactly what us happening.

  • Mort Shaw says:

    The conclusion is simple: if you do family medicine stay far away from being a family doctor. It isn’t worth it.

    • Alykhan Abdulla says:


      • Mort Shaw says:

        You just described a thankless 14 hr day. Of course any family medicine resident, who isn’t a martyr or masochist, would choose something else where they are valued and better remunerated. Ex. Hospitalist, ER, sports med, etc.

  • Claudia Hubbes says:

    Thank you for always writing so
    Honestly about our experience!

  • Stone Li says:

    I remember our previous correspondence well. I wanted to take the time to thank you for your hard work and mention that you are an inspiration to many physicians and trainees. It may not mean much as I’m probably a stranger to you, but best wishes.


Alykhan Abdulla


Dr. Alykhan Abdulla is a comprehensive family doctor working in Manotick, Ont., Board Director of the College of Family Physicians of Canada and Director for Longitudinal Leadership Curriculum at the University of Ottawa Undergraduate Medical Education.

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