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City on brink of 'catastrophic' doctor shortage, council warned

Council agrees to provide $16,000 to recruitment committee which is doing a 'phenomenal job' and has a 'track record of success ... bringing physicians here'
Council has granted $16,000 in additional funding to physician recruitment in Orillia for 2022, as local health officials warned that incoming physician retirements and long waitlists threaten to leave thousands without family doctors.

With incoming retirements and a local shortage of family health care providers, council has agreed to fund the Orillia & Area Physician Recruitment & Retention Committee (OAPRRC) with an extra $16,000 through 2022.

In a deputation to council Monday evening, committee members said that six family physicians in the area are expected to retire by the end of 2023, which places about one-third of the city’s residents at risk of losing their family doctors. 

With 2,000 residents currently on a waiting list for a family doctor, the committee said the loss of any additional doctors over the next year would be catastrophic, and that the city needs to find 12 new family physicians by the end of 2023.

“Any sudden departure at this point would be catastrophic, with patients not being able to be attached because of some of these recent departures that were unexpected,” said OAPRRC chair Dr. Matt Miller.

“The family physicians all kind of agreed to take on some small pockets of those patients. They've done that a couple of times now, (and) the majority of family physicians currently practising in Orillia are tapped, so there's no more room for them to expand their current practices. So again, we need 12 new family physicians, required by the end of 2023," Miller stressed.

The additional $16,000 granted by council Monday evening brings the city’s contribution to $34,000 for the year – roughly one dollar for every resident.

The request for additional funding came, in part, due to lost fundraising opportunities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know how terribly disappointing it's been for the last two years that we've had to cancel our fundraiser gala at the library because it, on average, brings in about $22,000 a year,” said Coun. Pat Hehn, who also serves on the committee.

“We've lost over $40,000 in funding over the last two years that we really counted on, so when we're only asking for an extra $16,000 we're actually still coming up short of the money that we (would have had).”

The funding granted to the committee will be used in a variety of methods to recruit and retain physicians in the area, including maintaining social media presence, funding site visits for high potential candidates, welcome packages and relocation allowance, access to community mentors, and offering temporary housing.

Dr. Nancy Merrow, chief of staff and VP of medical affairs at Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital (OSMH), said high levels of physician burnout have driven recruitment needs higher.

“The new physicians often are not accepting rosters of patients as high as their predecessors may have over the years. They have multiple interests that take them out of the office, and we're not in a one for one replacement environment in the recruitment business now,” she said. 

“The Canadian Medical Association physician health and wellbeing survey in 2021 in November, showed some very, very concerning numbers. Over 50% of physicians and medical learners have experienced high levels of burnout, compared to 30% five years ago," Merrow explained. 

"Nearly half of them are considering reducing their clinical workload in the next 24 months, and 59% of physicians indicated their mental health has worsened since the crisis in the pandemic.”

Since its inception more than 20 years ago, the committee has brought 30 family doctors to the area, and supported OSMH in recruiting over 60 specialists. The committee has recruited 6 physicians in the past year.

Members of council were happy to support the request for additional funds.

“As a former member of the (committee), I've seen firsthand, they don't waste money,” said Coun. Mason Ainsworth. “Everything that they're doing, they're doing a phenomenal job: they have a track record of success and bringing physicians here.”

“It's $1 per resident. Would you pay $1 to have access to a doctor? I think that's a no brainer,” he added.

Coun. Ted Emond expressed frustration with neighbouring Ramara, which has not recently contributed funds to recruiting doctors to the area.

“I assume that the crisis we're facing in primary care is equal in Ramara as it is here in the city, and it's time that Ramara stopped freeloading on its neighbours in terms of recruitment of physicians – it's embarrassing on your behalf,” he said.

“I do think that as we approach the current municipal elections, that the residents of Ramara should be well aware that they're not contributing to the recruiting of … primary physicians in this area, of which their residents are as in much need as those of us in the city," said Emond.

“Their health care does come from this community and from the health care providers within it, so that is very disappointing,” agreed Mayor Steve Clarke. “Hopefully that mindset will change, especially with this crisis on the horizon.”

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Greg McGrath-Goudie

About the Author: Greg McGrath-Goudie

Greg has been with Village Media since 2021, where he has worked as an LJI reporter for CollingwoodToday, and now as a city hall/general assignment reporter for OrilliaMatters
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