Anyone who has gone through this process knows how difficult it can be to find a family doctor in Ontario. When you’re a newcomer or are just in need of one of these professionals, whenever you reach a medical office the most common answer usually is: “This doctor is not accepting new patients”. It can take months, or even years for a person to have access to one physician, and some simply go without. Recent data shows that 1.3 million Ontarians don’t have a family doctor.
These professionals who specialize in providing lifelong care for their patients are the first point of contact with the health care system, which is one of the reasons they are so important. Without a family doctor the patients often end up in the emergency rooms and the results are the ones we’re currently witnessing, not only in Ontario, but also in other provinces: record-breaking ED wait-times and some of these departments just closing the doors because they don’t have enough staff to provide care.
To discuss the role and importance of family physicians in our province, the shortage we’re facing and what the government and institutions can do to solve this situation, we’ve interviewed Dr. Mekalai Kumanan, president of the Ontario College of Family Physicians. This organization represents more than 15,000 family physicians across the province and in this interview Dr. Kumanan not only pointed out the concerns related to the shortage of family doctors, the declining number of medical graduates who are choosing family medicine and the number of professionals that are about to retire, but also introduces us to the Ontario College of Family Physicians’ plans to work with the Ontario government to address these issues.
Milénio Stadium: What is the role of a family doctor in a patient’s life and why are they so important?
Dr. Mekalai Kumanan- Pres. Ontario College of Family Physicians: The pandemic has certainly highlighted the importance of Ontarians having access to high-quality and comprehensive healthcare— and that begins with access to a family doctor. So many of us have patients that we see over their lifetime from the time they are babies. Many of us also support our patients’ entire families. That care cannot be underestimated. Research shows that those with a regular family doctor have fewer hospitalizations, better health outcomes and live longer.
MS: Recent data shows that 1.3 million Ontarians don’t have a family doctor. What are the reasons for that?
Dr. MK: Ontario is in crisis. 1.3 million Ontarians do not have a family doctor right now. Across the province, patients are feeling the impact of an increasing family physician shortage as fewer medical graduates are choosing family medicine and more family doctors are retiring each year – 1 in 5 are currently reporting that they plan to retire within the next five years. Add to that, many family doctors are experiencing severe burnout from the pandemic.
MS: Ontario is facing a Health Care Crisis and the Emergency Department wait-times have reached record highs at many hospitals and others have just closed their doors because they don’t have enough staff to operate. Is this situation somehow the result of the shortage in family doctors in the province?
Dr. MK: It’s clear that our entire health system is under enormous strain – and that includes family doctors. We are hearing too many stories of patients who don’t have a family doctor going to emergency departments. Additionally, family doctors are seeing patients who are presenting with more complex health issues, and we are trying to navigate a very strained health care system in order to access the right care for our patients.
MS: What is the role of the pandemic in this current crisis in our health care system?
Dr. MK: One thing we are seeing is a rise in the severity of illnesses patients have, which is the result of deferring procedures or delays in seeking treatment during the pandemic. This means our patients are coming to us with more complex needs, and appointments are longer or more frequent. COVID-related backlogs for care and referrals, coupled with longer patient appointments for more complex conditions, mean family doctors’ offices are busier than ever, resulting in longer wait times for patients.
MS: What should the Ontario government do to recruit and retain more family doctors in the province?
Dr. MK: Ontario’s health system is in crisis, but we have a plan. The Ontario College of Family Physicians is ready to work with the Ontario government to address these issues. A key recommendation is to ensure Ontarians have a family doctor with a team behind them so patients can get the help they need faster. We also need to increase the time that family doctors can spend providing direct patient care. Family doctors say they can spend up to 25 per cent of their week or more on administrative work. This is time that could be better spent providing direct patient care. Lastly, recruiting and retaining more family doctors within the province is key. That includes simplifying the process for foreign-trained doctors to start practicing in Ontario and also expanding incentives to attract more physicians and medical graduates to regions that are currently underserved, including Northern Ontario and rural regions.
*You can read more at lifewithoutadoctor.ca.
Our policy solutions are here: https://lifewithoutadoctor.ca/policy.pdf