Clinic plan hailed as cure for local doctor shortage

A proposal from the Group Health Association to take over management of the Fort Frances Clinic may be the last chance to cure the physician shortage in town.
That’s why it’s very important for the public to come out to a meeting slated next Wednesday (Oct. 12) at 7 p.m. at the Memorial Sports Centre auditorium, said Coun. Todd Hamilton.
“It’s very important for the public to attend this meeting,” stressed Coun. Hamilton, who sits on the local physician recruitment and retention committee along with Mayor Dan Onichuk, Fort Frances CAO Mark McCaig, and representatives from the Fort Frances Clinic, Riverside Health Care Facilities, Inc., and Abitibi-Consolidated.
“If our physicians decide to go elsewhere, the reality of it is we’d be driving to Emo and Rainy River for our emergency services and primary health care services,” he warned.
“We need to keep them here and attract new ones.”
“For a couple of years now, the recruitment and retention committee has been focusing on incentives for doctors to come here, whether it be cash, golf passes, pool passes,” Coun. Hamilton noted.
“And the reality of the situation is all of those things are completely irrelevant,” he admitted. “What we need to do is change the model that’s currently in place here for primary care.
“The town has to get involved and create a more attractive model for physicians to stay and come here. That’s the crux of it.”
Under management of Sault Ste. Marie and District Group Health Association, this clinic would see doctors rent space at the building and practise, but not be required to be managers there or be part of a corporation.
But this will require the town to provide zero percent financing for the Group Health Association in purchasing the building—something which will be explained further at next Wednesday night’s meeting.
“Fortunately, for the past 30 or 40 years, this group of physicians at the Fort Frances Clinic have been doing everything—recruiting doctors, supplying their own building, supplying their own staff, and supplying their own computer systems. Everything,” Coun. Hamilton said.
“The reality of today’s primary care world is they can’t do it anymore,” he added. “So, the municipality has to get involved.
“Fortunately for this municipality, unlike other outlying municipalities that own buildings and have town employees involved [in providing primary health care], we’re in a position where we just have to finance something,” he remarked.
“Group Health is strictly asking for zero percent financing—they’re asking the town’s portion to be simply to cover interest charges for a term.
“We’re very fortunate that is the arrangement because the reality of it is we might otherwise have to buy into the building and take on employees,” noted Coun. Hamilton. “And we’re not in that business—we don’t know anything about running a medical clinic,” he stressed.
“So basically, the town’s cost would be to cover the interest on the balance of the loan for a term of 10, 12, 15 years—something like that.”
Coun. Hamilton said that possibly the only other alternative to bring physicians to Fort Frances would be to pay them large cash incentives just to come here—and even then, there’s no guarantee they’d stay.
“If we do nothing [with the proposal] and move forward, the total cost to the taxpayers could be $100,000-$200,000 a year if we start recruiting physicians,” he said.
“How do we get them here? I know Dryden and other Northwestern Ontario towns are providing cash incentives for physicians to come—$40,000 one year, $60,000 the next.
“We don’t want to get into that—that’s a lot of money,” added Coun. Hamilton. “Personally, I think it would be a situation where our physicians would depart and we wouldn’t be able to attract new ones.”
Coun. Hamilton noted the proposal by the Group Health Association is a change from the way things have been done over the past decades, but the public has to understand the local clinic can’t keep going under its current operating model.
“I really want to drive the point home that Fort Frances has been really fortunate, for as long as I can remember, to have this current group of physicians here recruiting all their own physicians, bringing them in on their own cost—along with Abitibi, who have paid a tremendous amount of money for recruitment and retention here.
“They’ve sort of bore the burden of bringing physicians in, and in today’s world, with the model they have, that’s not going to happen,” he said.
“[Physicians] don’t want to have to own bricks and mortar, they don’t want to have their own employees,” he added.
“I’ll be honest—physicians are great at what they do, but they’re not good businesspeople. And here we are asking them to be physicians full-time and part-time businesspeople, and it doesn’t work anymore.”
According to a notice from the town, the purpose of next Wednesday’s meeting is to explain:
•the nature of the crisis in primary care here and how it got to where it is;
•why the current local model for recruitment and retention of doctors has not worked and how it must be improved;
•the perspective on community primary care held by both federal and provincial governments; and
•a vision for new primary care in Fort Frances.
Speakers invited to the be present include Mayor Onichuk (representing town council), Dr. Robert Algie and Dr. Jason Shack (representing the local medical community), Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP Ken Boshcoff, Kenora-Rainy River MPP Howard Hampton, and Greg Pauch of the Sault Ste. Marie and District Group Health Association.
A question-and-answer period will follow the presentations.