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Finding a family doctor in Ontario hard and getting harder

More than a million Ontarians already don't have a family doctor and experts say that number could balloon
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(stock photo)

More than a million Ontarians already don't have access to a family doctor, and the incoming president of the Ontario College of Family Physicians says she expects that number to continue to grow.

According to Statistics Canada, 1.3 million people in the province currently don't have a family physician -- an issue which experts say is and will continue to impact the healthcare system as a whole.

"We know when a patient is connected to a family doctor, someone they've known over a period of time, who knows their medical history, there are significant health benefits to that patient," said Dr. Mekalai Kumanan, President-Elect, Ontario College of Family Physicians. "So there's direct impact to the patients across Ontario who don't have a family physician and we also see the system-level impacts because, as a system, we all work together."

Dr. Kumanan said when patients can't see a family doctor it, often means they eventually make their way to the hospital instead. That, in turn, drives up hospital and emergency room wait times.

She said it's even worse in some parts of the province where hospital emergency rooms are staffed by community doctors.

"We've seen the temporary closure of emergency rooms in different parts of the province due to physician shortages," Dr. Kumanan said. "So I think we can acknowledge the impact is very significant both to the patients without family physicians and to the system as a whole."

The shortage of family doctors in Ontario and elsewhere, however, is not a new issue. Dr. Kumanan said it's also, in large part, symptomatic of years of chronic under-funding and neglect. But things have gotten much worse through the pandemic.

"I think the pandemic has demonstrated for us maybe a bit more clearly how those gaps are playing out and affecting the people of Ontario, and I think the pandemic has also very clearly aggravated these issues where patients are presenting with more acute illness, we're seeing a lot of people struggling with mental health issues, and we're seeing backlog across the system."

Dr. Kumanan said that is also leading to a heightened level of system-wide stress. She said two-in-three family doctors say they are feeling moderate to severe burnout and one-in-five say they are considering retirement within the next five years.

"Which then, of course, can lead to family medicine becoming a bit less of an appealing specialty for our new, young medical school graduates, so we're seeing fewer medical students choosing family medicine," she said. "[These] chronic issues have become exasperated over the last couple years."

Dr. Kumanan said the College of Family Physicians has laid out a trio of recommendations it hopes the province will consider when crafting new policy. Those include things like ensuring family doctors work alongside a team of healthcare professionals, slashing administrative requirements so family doctors can spend more time on direct patient care, and putting a focus on new recruitment and retention initiatives.