Group health center in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario abandons thousands of patients due to doctor shortage

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A long-standing health care center designed to provide primary and specialty care to its patients in Sault Ste. Marie will remove 10,000 people from its list by May due to a shortage of doctors.

Lil Silvano, president and CEO of the Group Health Center, says the organization was created 60 years ago, at a time when OHIP did not exist.

Silvano recognizes that the loss of primary care for so many will have a huge impact on the community.

“In a community our size, this really concerns me,” she said.

“It extends beyond 10,000 people. These are individuals, these are our friends, our families, our neighbors.”

Dr. Jodie Stewart is a family physician working at the center and executive director of the Algoma District Medical Group.

She says administrative and other supports related to the center’s unique configuration allow the 35 doctors and eight nurse practitioners to devote more time to patient care.

The center has had to let go of 3,000 patients over the past six years, but now faces even more doctors leaving this spring, either due to retirement or leaving the community.

The 10,000 patients who lose their family doctor are notified by mail.

Stewart says they’ve tried to avoid having to abandon patients by juggling temporary measures internally, but they can’t delay abandoning patients any longer.

“It’s not really a decision, but a lack of other options,” she said.

“We have a primary care group where 30 percent are over 60 this spring. That was higher than before. We have many providers who have been putting off retirement for years in hopes of being recruited and we didn’t recruit.”

She says they’ve also seen younger doctors burn out because of the administrative burden involved in primary care.

It’s not really a decision, but a lack of other options-Dr. Jodie Stewart

Stewart says they are focused on retaining the doctors they currently have and then rebuilding to bring patients back.

She says what’s happening in Sault Ste. Marie is not unique and performs all over the country.

“Medical students don’t choose office-based family medicine as a career,” she said. “So I think we need to take a hard look at the supports available to family doctors.”

She says they would rather not spend 20 hours a week doing paperwork and would prefer to spend time with patients.

Sault Ste. City Council Marie will discuss options for dealing with the shortage of doctors on Monday.

Mayor Matthew Shoemaker champions the city’s investment over the past 22 years to keep pace with recruiting as doctors seek to retire and the needs of an aging population increase.

Aerial shot of Sault Ste.  Marie council room, with ten councilors sitting and listening to the mayor speak
Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Matthew Shoemaker and council will discuss possible solutions to the doctor shortage at a meeting Monday. (City of Sault Ste. Marie)

We recruited 206 doctors over those years,” he told CBC News.

“The problem is they’re retiring faster than we’re replacing them. So if we get, you know, an average of 10 a year, we’re probably losing 11 or 12 a year to people leaving. retirement, departures and parental leave and things of that nature.”

Shoemaker says council will discuss a motion to expand the scope of recruitment, not just to physicians, but also to other primary care providers like nurse practitioners

He says he has been in regular contact with the region’s MPP, Ross Romano, over the past few weeks on the matter.

A smiling bearded man stands in front of a map identifying Sault Ste Marie
Conservative MP Ross Romano says an expert panel of health care providers could make recommendations on solutions to the doctor shortage. (Angela Gemmill/CBC)

But Romano says he doesn’t think the problem is simply because retirements are outpacing recruitment, suggesting an expert panel of health care providers should be formed to find solutions.

“I think we need experts in the field to tell us what the concerns are and where the potential solutions to those concerns are,” he said. “They’re the ones who actually practice in the field and they obviously know it. I’m certainly not an expert in the field. I don’t pretend to be.”

Romano says he has tried to meet with doctors who leave for various reasons to learn more about their decisions.

However, he says the immediate concern is trying to help the 10,000 patients who will lose their family doctor on May 31.

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