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Ontario's Heading For Another Family Doctor Shortage

06/13/2017 12:33 EDT | Updated 06/13/2017 12:36 EDT

The Barer-Stoddart report. Ask any physician of a certain age and the immediate reaction is likely to be disparaging. Written in 1991, it purported to help chart the course of the physician workforce into the 21st century.

While it's true that much of the report was ignored by the Ontario government of Bob "Super Elite" Rae, it's still widely remembered for suggesting that the number of physicians in Ontario needed to be cut by 10 per cent. To accomplish this, medical school enrollment was slashed in the early 1990s.

eric hoskins

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins. (Photo: Canadian Press)

Given that the population of Ontario continued to grow and age, the result was completely predictable. A massive doctor shortage (particularly in family medicine) hit the province at the end of the decade. It has taken the last 15 years to come close to correcting that. We're not there yet (we still have fewer doctors per capita than Mongolia), but we were improving.

Alas, Ontario Health Minister "Unilateral Eric" Hoskins and Deputy Health Minister Bob Bell were unable to remember the old saying, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Last week I blogged about how Hoskins and Bell need to support family medicine. Because they are not doing so, many physicians who graduate from family medicine residencies are not starting comprehensive family practices. Instead, they are doing things like hospitalist work, sports medicine and even medical marijuana clinics.

It is essential for a sustainable health-care system to have a strong family medicine component.

However, the situation is even worse than I thought. It was pointed out to me after my blog was published that the number of medical students applying to family medicine programs has dropped considerably this year. In Canada, to become a practicing physician, you first have to graduate from medical school, then do a residency (essentially a training program) in the specialty of your choice. To choose a residency, you apply to CARMs -- which is a Canada-wide program that matches medical school graduates to the residency of their choice.

This year's CARMs match shows some alarming results for family medicine in Ontario. Ideally, we should have 45 to 50 per cent of all graduates from medical school apply to family medicine for a sustainable workforce. However, only the Northern Ontario School of Medicine achieved that goal. While it's a great school, it's still the smallest of Ontario's six medical schools.

By comparison, only 24 per cent of graduates of University of Toronto applied to family medicine, 27 per cent of Queen's graduates, 32 per cent of Ottawa's graduates, etc. Multiple studies show that comprehensive family medicine is responsible for decreased health-care costs, more efficient utilization of the health system, better patient outcomes and decreased hospitalizations. It is essential for a sustainable health-care system to have a strong family medicine component. The fact that so few medical school graduates chose family medicine, on top of the fact that recent graduates are not opening practices, should be setting off alarm bells.

doctor quitting job

(Photo: Drouk via Getty Images)

So, why is this happening? First and foremost, it's because Hoskins and Bell have refused to support family medicine. They have talked loudly about how they want to cut payments to higher paying specialties so that they could fund family medicine. Hoskins even went to the trouble of doctoring (pun intended) a chart to accuse specialists of overbilling.

(Seriously, see the picture in this article. Notice how he made the pie chart on the right larger -- the whole circle, not just the wedge showing percentage of billings. Makes the red area look LARGER than it really is, and makes the specialists look they are billing disproportionately more than they are.)

Unfortunately, while Hoskins and Bell were saying this in public, what they were actually doing is cutting family physicians. They unilaterally cut the number of physicians who could apply to the capitation (salary plus performance bonus) models of funding that I mentioned last week. This is the preferred method for paying physicians for newer graduates, and also for health care bureaucrats who like a predictable budget. Additionally, they cut a number of the performance bonuses family physicians got for looking after complex patients.

Hoskins and Bell will be remembered with the same disparaging legacy as Barer-Stoddart.

Medical students are not dumb. They saw all of this going on, and realized that family practice was no longer preferred by Hoskins and Bell. So they made career choices accordingly.

Currently, the Hoskins/Bell legacy is not a pretty one. It's one of internecine disputes with doctors, laid-off nurses, hospital deficits, patients in stretchers for days and egregious wait times. At least with family medicine, they have an opportunity to begin to correct this mess by once again allowing new physicians to enter the capitation model, and restoring the various performance bonuses.

Failure to do so will mean that many years from now, as patients struggle to find a family physician, Hoskins and Bell will be remembered with the same disparaging legacy as Barer-Stoddart.

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