TORONTO — Health Minister Eric Hoskins is defending the Ontario government's decision to eliminate 50 medical residency positions when hundreds of thousands of people don't have a family doctor.
Ontario has nearly doubled the number of first-year medical residency spots since 2004 to about 1,200 a year, and is now planning "modest" cuts to make better use of scarce health care dollars, said Hoskins.
"I'm confident that this change will help us achieve our goal of making sure that we've got the right specialists in the right areas and we've got the right number of family doctors and they're practising where we need them," he said. "This is really about making sure that we've got that mix right."
Hoskins promised to consult medical schools, universities and the Ontario Medical Association on implementing the cuts, and said there would still be more residency spots than there are Ontario graduates in any given year.
"We're still going to be licensing about 700 doctors each and every year in Ontario," he said.
Ontario had 1,013 Canadian medical school graduates plus another 200 from international medical schools in its first-year residency program in 2014-15.
The OMA said there are still 800,000 people in the province who do not have a family physician, and warned it took a decade for the impact of similar cuts to medical residency spots in the 1990s to be felt by patients.
"It's interesting that Dr. Hoskins said we were going to be consulted because we certainly wern't consulted on the cuts to begin with," said OMA president Dr. Mike Toth. "We have ... a growing and aging population who require more complex care. We need more doctors to meet those needs and provide that care, not fewer."
Hoskins said it wasn't "necessarily appropriate" to link the cuts in residency spots with the fact many people don't have a family doctor. The residency cuts could come in specialties where there are too many doctors, while the number of spots for family medicine could be increased if warranted, he added.
The Progressive Conservatives said the Liberals slashed $54 million from health care in the 2015 budget.
"Cutting the number of residency spaces ... can cause patients to rely on walk-in clinics and emergency departments, unnecessarily raising the cost of health care services," said PC Leader Patrick Brown.
The New Democrats said Premier Kathleen Wynne is making the doctors' shortage worse, especially in under-serviced areas like the north, where medical residencies are an important way of getting physicians to stay in those communities.
"When the Liberals are cutting back residency spaces, I worry that northern and rural resident placements will get hit first," said NDP health critic France Gelinas.
The OMA called the elimination of 50 first-year residency spaces "irresponsible and unacceptable," and said the government was being short-sighted.
"Doctors tend to stay and set up practice where they train," said Toth.
The Liberal government apparently made the cuts to help reduce its $10.9-billion budget deficit, but not to help patients, added Toth.
"It is very frustrating to see a government that seems to be so fixed on its fiscal problems that it's not paying attention to what we think is a priority for the people of Ontario, which is health care," he said.
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