Immediate action is needed to support Northern Ontario family doctors
working to keep emergency rooms on the brink of closure open.
Several Northern Ontario hospitals are at risk of closing their emergency rooms (ERs), with family doctors currently working around the clock to help keep them open. The Ontario College of Family Physicians (OCFP) and the OMA Section on General & Family Practice (SGFP) are calling for quick and immediate action to support these family doctors and their patients.
The situation is critical as many Northern communities are struggling to ensure ER shifts are covered while facing significant population increases in the summer months. In the North, family doctors are relied upon to staff ERs.
Family doctors face unique and extraordinary challenges in the North. In other parts of the province, the next nearest hospital may be 20-40 minutes away. In the North, if an ER closes, the next hospital could be more than two hours away, leaving patients with life-threatening illness or injury dangerously at risk.
For family doctors in the North, closing an ER is not an option. But keeping them open means they are taking on more shifts than is reasonable to expect. Family doctors always put their patients first, but many of these doctors are doing the impossible right now.
Across the North, hospitals are struggling to get temporary doctors (locums) to cover shifts for many reasons, including inexperience with the demands of working in a Northern emergency room. Without the support of these temporary doctors there remain significant scheduling gaps – some hospitals regularly face gaps of 40-50 shifts in the ERs every month. These shifts are often then filled by family doctors in order to avoid a closure.
Adding to the crisis, when family doctors must take extra shifts to keep an ER open, they cancel their primary care clinics. There is already a shortage of more than 200 family doctors in the North, leaving patients in almost every community without adequate access to a family doctor.
This situation is tenuous and unsustainable. However, we believe a rapid response from government and healthcare leaders could help to stabilize the current crisis.
The Ontario College of Family Physicians (OCFP) and the OMA Section on General & Family Practice (SGFP) are calling for:
- Immediate enhanced locum program supports to ensure temporary doctors are available where they are most needed right now. Longer-term rethinking of how locums are used in the North is necessary.
- Urgently fund recruitment programs to bring new physicians to the North.
- Retention is critical. Implement a comprehensive strategy and ensure positive working conditions to retain the remaining physicians in the North.
- Provide immediate peer support for family doctors working in these difficult conditions to maintain their mental health and wellbeing.
The OCFP will continue to work with partners to build on solutions to support family doctors in the North.