Patients without a family doctor to double in northeast by 2026, province warned

By Laura Stradiotto
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Sudbury Star

New data from the Ontario College of Family Physicians shows that the number of residents without a family doctor in Sudbury, Manitoulin Island and Parry Sound will nearly double in the next two years.

According to the association, there are currently 32,000 people without a family physician in the jurisdiction encompassing the three above-mentioned communities and without additional support from the provincial government, that number is expected to grow to 62,900 by 2026.

“Ontario is facing a major health-care crisis right now,” said Dave Courtemanche, executive director of the City of Lakes Family Health Team and board member of the Ontario College of Family Physicians. “There’s an exodus of physicians leaving family medicine right across Ontario.”

Many physicians have reported an overwhelming administrative burden – spending 19 hours a week on administrative work – along with a lack of team supports and compensation that has not kept up with inflation.

Courtemanche called the numbers “staggering” and the situation “dire” as 2.3 million Ontarians are currently without a family doctor and that number will grow to 4.4 million by 2026.

He said the situation in Northern Ontario is far worse than southern Ontario. For example, Sault Ste. Marie’s Group Health Centre announced earlier this year that 10,000 patients will lose access to their family doctor as of May 31, while another 6,000 are at risk of losing access later this year.

Courtemanche said the situation in Hearst is no better, with 55 per cent of residents in that community without a family physician.

The Ontario College of Family Physicians has outlined areas that need to be immediately addressed to reverse the trend.

“We need to retain the doctors we have and recruit the doctors of the future as well,” said Courtemanche. “When you talk to family physicians across Ontario, what you hear is that they care deeply for their patients and want to be there for them but there are factors that are contributing to their practice.”

Those 19 hours spent a week on administrative work means doctors are looking at “paper not patients,” he said.

Courtemanche said the province can offer simple solutions here, such as eliminating employer-mandated sick notes and modernizing outdated referral systems.

Additionally, he said family physicians are essentially running a business and are struggling to keep up with operating costs, as well as not being compensated for their work. New family physicians want to practice with the support of teams, with registered and practical nurses and social workers, and he said the province needs to better support such team-based primary care. Courtemanche said that only last week did the City of Lakes Family Health Team in Greater Sudbury learn it would receive an operational funding boost after years of no increase. Still, he said it doesn’t properly address compensating health care providers, such as registered nurses, who are paid less in primary care than, for example, in a hospital-based setting or public health.

Courtemanche said another important player in solving the province’s health care crisis is better support for medical schools like the Northern Ontario School of Medicine University, which is based in Sudbury and Thunder Bay.

“The province of Ontario needs to partner with NOSM and they need to invest more in family medicine training for Northern Ontario,” he said.

Ultimately, it must become more attractive for medical students to pursue family medicine, he said.

“Here in Northern Ontario, the situation is dire,” said Courtemanche “The province needs to work closely with NOSM to address the issues facing communities across Northern Ontario.”

NOSM understands the health care needs of rural and Northern Ontario and “they have the solutions in making this more attractive for medical students.”

Despite the grim forecast, Courtemanche is optimistic the trend can be reversed.

“We know we can reverse this trend, but the province needs to see this as a major health-care crisis, understand there’s an exodus of family physicians and take urgent action,” he said.

“But the province has to get moving now. They have to take substantial action to address the issues that family physicians have voiced in terms of what is hurting them in their practices and preventing them from providing the kind of care they want to provide to their patients.”

Hannah Jensen, spokesperson for the Minister of Health Sylvia Jones, outlined a number of initiatives the province is pursuing to address the family physician situation, as well to improve access to primary care in Ontario.

Jensen said that under Premier Doug Ford, the government has added more than 10,400 new physicians since 2018, which includes a 10 per cent increase in family doctors, by adding hundreds of undergraduate and medical seats across the province, with 60 per cent of seats specifically for family medicine.

She notes that at NOSM, more than half of residency students are studying family medicine. The province is also looking to add another 50 new physicians in the province this year through the Practice Ready Ontario Program, which helps internationally and interprovincially educated health-care workers transition to work in Ontario.

She said Ontario is also “expanding interprofessional primary care teams by investing $110 million, triple the original amount set out in our 23-24 budget to create and expand 78 primary care teams, that will ensure 98 per cent of Ontarians are connected to a primary care provider over the next several years.”

This includes an expansion at Centre de Santé Univi Health Centre, located in Alban, in the community of French River.

When it comes to the administrative burden noted by family physicians, she said the province established the Bilateral Burnout Task Force by improving OMA-endorsed priority government forms.

“Our work has significantly accelerated work to simplify forms and we look forward to sharing the improvements that have been made in the near future,” Jensen said. “As of Oct. 12, the Ministry of Health is in negotiations with the Ontario Medical Association to determine the physician services agreement. We look forward to further discussions at the table with the OMA.”

In addition, the province has launched the initiative called Patients Before Paper Work (PB4P) to “further tackle the administrative burden on physicians while reducing the risk of delays of delays in diagnosis and treatment.”

The program includes initiatives like eReferral, which was designed “to tackle referrals, consults, prescriptions and central intake while beginning the process to Axe the Fax, replacing fax machines with a digital communications alternative at all Ontario health care providers,” she said.