Back in the mid-1990s, the Ontario cottage-country village of Kinmount (Pop. 500) found itself without a family doctor.
So the town authorities set out with a plan. They raised thousands of dollars, put together a turnkey doctor’s office in advance and then advertised hither and yon, including signs along the highway heading in and out of town about the search for a family physician.
As I wrote at the time, it paid off with Dr. Elena Mihu, who’s been there ever since.
According to the Globe and Mail, the town of Wheatley in southwestern Ontario (Pop. 2,868) will lose its only family doctor on Dec. 31, when David Eaton retires.
The Thamesview Family Health Team with which Dr. Eaton is affiliated asked the Ontario Ministry of Health for funding last year for a nurse practitioner to care for his 1,600 patients until a doctor can be found.
That money has yet to arrive.
There is nothing new in this, of course. As the Globe recently reported, one in six family doctors are nearing retirement age, leaving potentially millions of Canadians in health care limbo because the younger generation of doctors tend to shy away from family practices.
Around Christmas two years ago here in Ottawa, we lost our primary-care doctor to retirement and it took a year or more of hard slogging to find his replacement but not his equal.
We had been spoiled by exemplary service and familiarity. There was a comfort zone that built up over time, and then suddenly it was gone.
A Canadian Medical Association (CMA) comparison of job postings to newly qualified family physicians shows that Canada does not have the capacity to absorb those leaving the profession – 6,819 were 65 and older in 2021.
Government recruitment websites advertised full-time positions for 2,571 family doctors in December, the CMA data show. But only 1,461 completed the postgraduate supervised training required to become licensed family doctors in 2021 – a gap that has doubled over the past two years.
The Globe focused on Jane Pritchard, a 73-year-old family doctor in Toronto who wants to retire but cannot find anyone to take over her 900 patients. ‘I stay awake at night, wondering what’s going to happen to them if they don’t have a family doctor,’ she told the newspaper.
Right now, she divides her time between caring for patients at a drop-in centre for women in downtown Toronto; refugees and immigrants from Latin America, including some who speak only Spanish, at her office; and 20 patients in their homes.
The aging family physician workforce amplifies Canada’s crisis in primary care, adding looming retirements to dwindling interest in family medicine among medical school graduates and a critical shortage of doctors. As older doctors retire, many cannot find younger colleagues to take over their practices.
“There are many places across the country that are struggling to recruit,” said Alika Lafontaine, president of the CMA. “Primary-care practice is in a really tough spot right now.”
A wave of retirements not only leaves more patients without a family doctor, Dr. Lafontaine said, it further strains hospitals and nursing homes, where many of these physicians also work.
According to the Globe, much of the decline in the share of younger doctors can be traced to 1992, when provincial health ministers agreed to cut medical school admissions as part of a plan to curtail mounting health care costs.
A Canada-wide 10% reduction in admissions in the 1993 academic year left the country with fewer doctors entering postgraduate training for the first time, beginning with the graduating class of 1997.
And so here we are today, with a doctor crisis that will only get worse.