VANCOUVER -- For the first time in years, if you ask a family doctor in Metro Vancouver if they can take you on as a patient you actually have a good chance of hearing "yes."

Several general practitioners and the professional association Doctors of BC all tell CTV News that patient rosters are opening up for the first time in years due to two factors: a slowdown in visits to doctors overall, and the efficiencies found in virtual health-care services that expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There have definitely been some anecdotal stories that (telehealth and virtual health) are increasing the number of spaces and that may be true or not, it’s too early to tell, because unfortunately not everyone is seeing their physician,” explained Doctors of BC President, Dr. Kathleen Ross, who says doctors can handle more patients in the day via phone or video chat.

While all health-care providers are urging people needing medical attention to call in advance to determine if a virtual appointment is sufficient, doctors are still seeing patients in their offices for assessments that need the human touch. That dual approach is allowing multi-doctor clinics like Aquarius Medical to treat more patients than before.

“Before, we were limited in available (space) and weren’t taking new patients, but now … the space isn’t such a problem, so we are able to once again take new patients,” said Aquarius medical director Dr. Linda Jando. “We are seeing a lot of mental health issues through the pandemic, but we’re seeing a lot of our usual patients coming in for headaches, backaches, bladder infections, skin rashes — the typical stuff we usually see.”

Doctors have been urging people who need immediate medical attention, medication or continuing care to see their physician or attend a walk-in clinic, urgent care centre or emergency department as needed. Visits are down across the board, with doctors blaming nervousness to be around sick people during a pandemic and the misplaced belief that doctors are too busy with COVID-19 patients to see anyone else.

So many people are staying away, medical professions in a range of fields worry there may be collateral damage of the pandemic as chronic health conditions go untreated or minor issues develop into complex, long-term problems.

At the same time, the Canadian Medical Association recently conducted a nationwide survey that found about half of Canadian have had a virtual appointment, with 91 per cent satisfied with the experience.

Ross suggests anyone looking for a family doctor approach their local primary care practice or ask a doctor they like during a virtual or walk-in clinic visit if they’re taking new patients. She’s also urging anyone hesitant about a remote appointment to at least call their family doctor to discuss any health issues they may have.

“As physicians, we miss that hands-on, face-to-face connection with our patients, as well, using only virtual care,” said Ross. “However, that’s where we are for the moment, so I encourage patients to reach out, speak to their family doctor if they have one, or to contact their local division of family practice if they don’t have a family doctor and are looking for one.”