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Group Health Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., drops thousands of patients due to doctor shortage

A long-standing health centre in Sault Ste. Marie says it will have to drop 10,000 patients because of doctors leaving or retiring. (The Canadian Press - image credit)
A long-standing health centre in Sault Ste. Marie says it will have to drop 10,000 patients because of doctors leaving or retiring. (The Canadian Press - image credit)

A long-standing health-care centre designed to offer primary and specialty care to its patients in Sault Ste. Marie is dropping 10,000 people from its roster by May because of a doctor shortage.

President and CEO of the Group Health Centre, Lil Silvano says the organization was established 60 years ago during a time when OHIP didn't exist.

Silvano acknowledges the loss of primary care to so many will have a huge impact in the community.

"In a community of our size, it's definitely concerning that to me," she said.

"It expands beyond the 10,000. These are individuals, these are our friends, our families, our neighbours."

Dr. Jodie Stewart is a family physician working at the centre and the CEO of the Algoma District Medical Group.

She says administrative and other supports of the centre's unique set-up allow the 35 doctors and eight nurse practitioners to devote more of their time to patient care.

The centre has had to drop 3,000 patients over the past six years but is now facing the departure of even more doctors this spring either due to retirement or leaving the community.

The 10,000 patients losing their family doctor are being notified by mail.

Stewart says they've been trying to avoid having to drop patients by juggling temporary measures internally but can no longer put off dropping the patients.

"It's not really a decision, but a running out of lack of other options," she said.

"We have a primary care group where 30 per cent of them are over the age of 60, as of this spring. It was higher than that previously. We have numerous providers who've been deferring their retirement for years hoping for recruitment and we've not been recruiting."

She says they've also been seeing younger physicians burning out because of the administrative burden involved in primary care.

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

Stewart says they're concentrating on retaining the physicians they have now, then rebuilding to bring back patients.

She says what's happening in Sault Ste. Marie is not unique and is happening across the country.

"Medical students are not choosing office-based family medicine as a career," she said. "So I think we need to take a hard look at the supports that are offered to family physicians."

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

City council in Sault Ste. Marie will discuss options to deal with the doctor shortage on Monday.

Mayor Matthew Shoemaker defends the city's investment over the past 22 years to keep up with recruitment as doctors seek to retire and the needs of an aging population grow.

New Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Matthew Shoemaker addresses the council chambers during the inauguration ceremony Tuesday night.
New Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Matthew Shoemaker addresses the council chambers during the inauguration ceremony Tuesday night.

Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Matthew Shoemaker and council will talk about possible remedies to the doctor shortage at a meeting Monday. (City of Sault Ste. Marie )

We've recruited 206 physicians in those years," he told CBC News.

"The problem is they're retiring faster than we're replacing them. So if we get, you know, on average 10 a year, we're probably losing 11 or 12 per year due to retirement, and departures, and parental leaves and things of that nature."

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

He says he's been in regular contact with the area's MPP, Ross Romano, for the past several weeks on the issue.

Ross Romano is the MPP for Sault Ste. Marie
Ross Romano is the MPP for Sault Ste. Marie

Conservative MPP Ross Romano says an expert panel of health care providers could make recommendations about solutions to the doctor shortage. (Angela Gemmill/CBC)

But Romano says he doesn't think the problem is merely retirements outpacing recruitment, suggesting an expert panel of health care providers should be formed to come up with solutions.

"I think what we need are the experts in the field to tell us what the concerns are and where the potential remedies of those concerns are," he said. "They're the people actually practicing in the area and they obviously know. I certainly am not an expert in it. I don't profess to be."

Romano says he has been trying to meet with the doctors who are leaving 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 doctors on May 31.