I'm a bit surprised if I ring my doctor in town in the morning and can't get an appointment for the next day at the latest. Usually if I ring in the morning I can get an appointment in the afternoon.
But then I live in New Zealand, there are constant news stories about a lack of doctors but it sounds like we are doing well compared.
What do you do if you're really sick?
That is an excellent question. And it's part of what prompted me to finally get a GP. Two events occurred in close succession back in the spring. First, I fell on my knee and bruised it quite badly. It was hugely swollen, and I really thought I might have fractured the knee cap. Then, a few weeks later, I developed an ear infection. In both cases, my initial reaction was "Shit! What do I do?! What do I do?!".
With my knee, I got lucky. My company has a nurse on staff, who made a call, and got a doctor to fit me in that afternoon. I had briefly considered going to the Emergency room. Which, for a lot of people in the US, insured and uninsured, is where they go for primary care. But I decided I didn't want to sit around for 5 or 6 hours to have some resident poke at me, tell me it was a bruise, ice and elevate it. I could do that for free at home.
With the ear, I went to a MinuteClinic - a walk-in drugstore clinic staffed by a nurse practitioner. Its not a perfect model, but it definitely fills a need. You don't need an appointment. You get in, get your self diagnosis confirmed, get some drugs (maybe pick up some milk and glossy celebrity tabloids), and you're on your way.
In the past, when I did have a regular doctor, I rarely had a problem getting a last minute appointment. She was part of a fair sized practice, including several other MDs and nurse practitioners. So even if she didn't have an opening, someone else did.
I'm hopeful that once I'm established with my new doctor, that will be the case again.
But for a lot of people, I think they just make the most of whatever services are available. Otherwise, they just do without and hope for the best.