Doctor shortage has reached crisis across District: Committee

By Allan Bradbury
Staff writer

The Fort Frances and District Physician Recruitment and Retention Committee issued an urgent plea for help to district government representatives. A letter sent to MPP Greg Rickford and MP Marcus Powlowski is urging the provincial and federal government to assist the region in securing more doctors.

“The status of physician recruitment and retention in the Rainy River District is in crisis,” the letter reads. “We do not use that term lightly; we have long prided ourselves on trying to make it work, but the current situation is not sustainable. Physicians are burnt out, resignation letters have been submitted and unfortunately, others are being written.”

The situation is one that Rainy River Mayor Deb Ewald is all too familiar with.

“We always need doctors,” Ewald said. “We run our hospital here and we have two doctors and then they depend on locums to fill in gaps. I think that’s becoming a more difficult thing to do, especially with COVID and other issues.”

The Fort Frances Times contacted MPP Rickford and MP Powlowski before the letter was sent last Monday.

Rickford’s office issued a written statement, saying that the provincial government offers grants and incentives to offer physicians who establish practice in northern communities.

“Supporting our northern physicians is a top priority for our government. We offer several incentives and grants to promote physician recruitment, including the Northern & Rural Recruitment & Retention Initiative (NRRRI) and the Northern Physician Incentive Initiative, which provide incentive grants to physicians working in northern Ontario. The NRRRI provides funding of $83-122k for each eligible family or specialist physician who establishes a full-time practice in an eligible community. Under this initiative, Rainy River’s incentive value is $116,600. The NPRI provides funding for family and specialist physicians who have stayed and maintained their practice in northern Ontario for at least four years.”

Liberal MP for Thunder Bay-Rainy River Marcus Powlowski, who is a physician himself, says the issue has been the same for a long time.

“I graduated from medical school in 1986, so quite a long time ago,” Powlowski said. “And you know what, basically when it comes to underserviced areas, nothing has changed in all that time; it’s the same situation that we have a shortage of medical practitioners. Back then we didn’t have nurse practitioners or physician assistants, but either way, we haven’t, in my opinion, changed all that much.”

Powlowski acknowledged the fact that the old ways of a one or two doctors servicing a town all day every day is rare now, with many older doctors retiring. New physicians have opted to look for better work-life balance, rather than be on call 24/7, in hopes of avoiding the burnout that is often associated with work in smaller towns, with fewer resources.

Powlowski also knows the rigours of being a physician in a remote location, having worked in remote areas of Canada like Nain in northern Newfoundland and Labrador, Iqaluit in Nunavut, The Pas in Manitoba as well as in developing countries like Gambia, and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) in Africa, and Papua New Guinea and Vanauatu in the South Pacific.

The federal government had promises for the recruitment and retention of physicians in its re-election platform last fall, said Powlowski.

“The election platform promised to bring in 7,500 new primary care practitioners, be they doctors, medical assistants, physician’s assistants, or nurse practitioners, to work in underserviced areas,” Powlowski said. “Hopefully to give every Canadian access to a primary health care practitioner, so 7,500 practitioners and $3 billion.”

Powlowski said he knows the government can’t just come up with over seven thousand healthcare practitioners out of nowhere, but said they will be making the effort to recruit them.

Powlowski acknowledged that the federal government has no power over the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario – the regulatory college for Ontario medical doctors – but said that the government can work with the college to expedite the licensing of foreign-trained practitioners, who would be able to practice in rural settings.

Powlowski recalled that, during his residency, many staff in hospitals were trained as doctors elsewhere in the world – and yet were working as custodians or other roles in hospitals.

He also speculated that the college could potentially license foreign-trained doctors to only practice in rural or northern areas for a certain period of time, in order to fill the empty spaces.

“I think if the government was to use its spending power in order to offer the provinces money to help where necessary and bring foreign graduates up to the requisite level to practice in Canada,” Powlowski said. “So that might mean some academic upgrading, it might mean some clinical upgrading. That is, by far, the quickest way to get to augment the supply of doctors and nurses.”

As the Recruitment Committee stated in their letter, “This is a complex problem that requires short, medium and long-term solutions.”