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Health-care inequity means Northerners die early, and it’s high time government fixes the problem, Ontario Medical Assoc. says

Doctors group speaks out on the need to improve equitable access to health care and specialists in Northern Ontario

The Ontario Medical Association said it recognizes that health care in Northern Ontario is lacking and the life expectancy of Northern residents is more than two years lower than the Ontario average.

That's one of the key reasons why the OMA believes work is needed to provide "equitable access to health care" for Northern Ontario, which will be part of a new initiative for the OMA to improve health care across the province.

OMA president Dr. Adam Kassam of Toronto was speaking from Sudbury in a Zoom conference Monday when he said "providing equitable access to health care is a unique challenge requiring unique solutions."

Kassam was visiting Sudbury along with OMA CEO Allan O'Dette to meet with officials at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) to talk about the OMA's prescription for Northern Ontario. 

The OMA said it is part of a larger plan, “Prescription for Ontario: Doctors' Five-Point Plan for Better Health Care”, which is to be fully outlined Tuesday in a news event at Queen's Park.

"Ontario's doctors are frustrated because patients aren't able to get the care that they need when they need it. And let's be honest, that's gone on for far too long. And health care in Northern Ontario can be improved, frankly must be improved," said Kassam.

He said one of the main concerns is the lack of family doctors in small and remote communities. Kassam quoted figures from O'Dette when he mentioned that one person in eight across the North and roughly one million citizens across Ontario do not have access to a family doctor.  

"This is a real risk to the long-term health of residents. Here are some examples; Manitouwadge had no practicing physician for a period of time at the end of the summer. Nipigon had only three of the five doctors it needs. Sioux Lookout, which serves many remote indigenous communities, had half the doctors it needs. And Wawa should have six doctors, but there are only four there now," said Kassam.

Also speaking out was CEO Allan O'Dette who commented on the shortage of doctors, nurses and other frontline health care professionals in Northern Ontario.

"They're burning out. Everyone is fatigued. The level of fatigue, stress and burnout in this community is overwhelming. And that's why Ontario is launching the largest consultation that it has in its 140-year history. We've been to communities right across this province doing this work. In fact, the first one we held was in Northern Ontario," he said.

O'Dette said he felt it was important to pass the message on to the medical community that an extra effort will be made to address what he called the "heightened" Northern Ontario concerns. 

"The overall strategy of our platform is to reduce wait times in backlog of services, expand mental health, addiction programs in the community, improve and expand home and other community 

Kassam spoke more specifically about the five major pillars for improving Ontario's health care.

He said the first is to address the pandemic backlog of what he said were "20 million points of care", things like missed screening and diagnostic appointments, or missed medical procedures.

The second pillar is access to mental health and addiction services, something Kassam said is a chief concern in Northern Ontario.

The third major concern is the need to create a more robust system for home care, community care and long-term care. Kassam said those issues demand immediate answers.

The fourth issue he said is "pandemic proofing" for the future. 

"We should have been ready for this," said Kassam. He said the entire medical community and government needs to step up and find answers.

The No. 5 issue, said Kassam, is creating an integrated framework for health care delivery across all sectors in society and this will mean intensive lobbying of the government.

The inclusion of government is a key issue according to O'Dette, who said the OMA platform will be delivered to all Ontario political leaders on Tuesday.

"And we are going to spend between now and the election next June, to ensure that every one of the political parties and their leaders adopt these recommendations into their platforms," said O'Dette. 

Also speaking out was NOSM Dean, president and CEO Dr. Sarita Verma who said the problems of wait times for different medical conditions is at a crisis level. Verma said it would take five existing graduating classes at NOSM to graduate next year, just to address the current shortage. 

"So we don't have that capacity right away. But the long game will have to be to be able to expand the medical school. But the short game actually and whoever asked that question, this is a problem right now. And so we need to be able to truncate paths of care, and to bring in some additional care from the South to be able to deal with our backlogs," said Verma.

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at He covers health care in Northern Ontario.


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Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

About the Author: Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at covering health care in northeastern Ontario and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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