Why thousands of rural Ontarians may be at risk of losing their doctor

Click to play video: 'Family doctors sound alarm over retention, burnout'
Family doctors sound alarm over retention, burnout
WATCH: Millions of Canadians do not have a family doctor, and the consequences of not having one play out differently if you live in a small town instead of a big city. Abigail Bimman explains – Feb 15, 2024

Roughly 10,000 patients in rural Ontario could lose their doctor due to a provincial funding decision that splits a small town into haves and have-nots, according to the local clinic’s medical director.

“To have half of our patient population go without those extra supports that we all desperately need right now is a major blow,” Dr. Taylor Ferrier of the Tay River Health Centre told Global News.

Ferrier submitted an application asking the province for $2.9 million, which he said would allow them to cover an additional 8,500 area patients who don’t have a primary health-care provider.

His clinic is in the small town of Perth, Ont., west of Ottawa, with a population of around 6,500. It currently has 10 doctors and more than 10,000 patients.

The application was for team-based care, including women’s health, memory care for patients with dementia, an after-hours clinic and mental health services. It was a joint application with another clinic in the smaller community of Sharbot Lake, Ont.

Story continues below advertisement

But earlier this month, Tay River learned that the application was rejected, while the only other family health team’s in Perth was approved. That team will receive $3.1 million.

Click to play video: 'Doctors warn Ontario health-care crisis will worsen if family doctor shortage isn’t addressed'
Doctors warn Ontario health-care crisis will worsen if family doctor shortage isn’t addressed

“Our team was met with grief, shock, and quite a bit of confusion,” Ferrier said.

The latest health and medical news emailed to you every Sunday.

“And then ultimately, when the dust settled, it was clear that this was going to have a significant and severe impact on our ability to provide that top level of care that we want to, both short and long term.”

The lack of funding means his clinic won’t be able to provide the expanded team services, like after-hours or mental health care. He says it will make it difficult for him to attract new doctors, while several current doctors are already mulling leaving. Each of them wrote letters to the province’s key players asking them to reconsider.

Story continues below advertisement

Ferrier is also worried a funding discrepancy in a small community like theirs means some of his clinic’s doctors may be lured to the clinics in town with better funding.

If nothing changes, he says the Tay River Health Centre will need to shut down in two to three years.

The Town of Perth is calling on Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones to reconsider her decision. Council had supported both family health teams’ applications.

While Mayor Judy Brown is very pleased half of her town’s doctors are receiving a much-needed financial boost, she is concerned about having enough doctors going forward for both an aging and a growing population.

“Too few doctors, hordes of ghost patients, or people without a doctor, something has to be done,” Brown told Global News.

“As much as we’re grateful (for one team’s funding), it seems a little unfair.”

Click to play video: 'Could your doctor dump you for going to a walk-in clinic?'
Could your doctor dump you for going to a walk-in clinic?

The provincial health minister’s office told Global News it received an overwhelming number of applications for the funding (though couldn’t say how many exactly), and ultimately approved 78 teams for $110 million across the province, which it says will connect 328,000 patients to care.

Story continues below advertisement

But Jones’ office wouldn’t give any specifics about why Tay River’s application was denied.

“We encourage all unsuccessful applicants to continue to work with their Ontario Health region and the Ministry of Health on innovative action they can take to make it easier to access care, in their community. We recognize that there is more work to do, and while these teams begin to connect hundreds of thousands of Ontarians, we remain dedicated to implementing our Your Health plan to further ensure everyone that wants a primary care provider can connect to one,” spokesperson Hannah Jensen wrote in a statement.

She added that since the Sharbot Lake clinic is part of an existing family health team, it will receive an additional $20,000.

John Waugh is a patient at Tay River, and he’s worried about the impact of the funding decision.

“We need as many doctors as we can muster,” he told Global News.

He feels fortunate to have a family doctor, knowing friends without one who have been forced to wait in the emergency room for hours instead.

“If we start losing clinics or losing doctors from clinics, it’s going to be even worse.”

Sponsored content