While the numbers have improved in recent years, residents in northeastern Ontario still have less access to primary care providers — including family doctors and nurse practitioners — than their southern neighbours.
A new report by Health Quality Ontario, which independently advises the province on health matters, found that 88.3 per cent of people in northeastern Ontario have a primary care provider, while the number is around 94 per cent in the entire province.
The report, called Quality in Primary Care, found that 28.4 per cent of northerners are able to see their primary care provider within 24 hours, while 44 per cent of Ontarians can see their family doctor or nurse practitioner within a day.
NDP health critic France Gélinas blamed the Liberals on Tuesday for the report's findings.
“The health minister and this government need to take responsibility for failing Ontarians so badly,” she said. “The Liberals should focus on doing their job and making it easier for families to get an appointment with a primary care provider. Instead, this government is too busy fighting doctors and laying off hundreds of nurses from our hospitals, which does nothing to improve care.”
The Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) was established in 2005 to train physicians who would go on to practice in the northern communities.
In its 10 years of existence, 69 per cent of graduates from NOSM's residency programs have chosen to practice medicine in Northern Ontario.
Twenty-two per cent of those graduates are practicing in remote communities that have had historical difficulty attracting and keeping physicians in their communities.
But even with a more recent influx of new physicians, Northern Ontario has continued to lag behind the rest of the province.
“Primary care is a crucial component of our health system and right now, who you are and where you live matter when it comes to receiving high-quality primary care in Ontario,” said Dr. Joshua Tepper, president and CEO of Health Quality Ontario, in a press release. “The inequity in care underscores the importance of monitoring performance and working towards a strategy that will improve primary care for all Ontarians.”
Tepper told NorthernLife.ca Health Care Ontario will continue to update the report's data on a regular basis to track any progress, or regression, with the numbers.
He said primary care providers are often patients' gateways to the rest of the health care system.
“We need that gate to function very well for everybody,” he said.
The report also found northerners with chronic conditions, such as lung disease or heart problems, also had less access to follow-ups than patients in other parts of the province.
In the North East Local Health Integration Network area, 22 per cent patients hospitalized for a chronic condition had a follow-up with their family physician within seven days of discharge, compared to 38 per cent of patients discharged from hospital in the Central West LHIN area, just northwest of Toronto.
In addition to geography, the report also found recent immigrants to Canada, who have been in the country fewer than 10 years, have less access to primary care providers.
Eighty-six per cent of that population has access to a primary care provider, compared to 94 per cent of Ontario's population as a whole.