The Muskoka and Area Ontario Health Team, of which the Almaguin Highlands Health Council (AHHC) is a member, has taken steps to help minimize the impact of an anticipated shortage involving primary health-care providers. Armour Coun. Rod Ward, who is also the chair of the AHHC, says the region the Muskoka and Area Ontario Health Team (MAOHT) covers is expecting to lose 15 to 18 primary health-care providers in the next three years. Ward says that means the loss of 15 to 18 physicians and nurse practitioners. In raising the issue, Ward told The Nugget he was not speaking on behalf of the MAOHT, but rather as the chair of the Almaguin health council group. Ward says the MAOHT has created a task force to get a better understanding of what lies ahead for the region and the effects the health-care shortage may cause. Ward says the task force is new and is just beginning its work. He says it has been able to determine the physician shortage will be mostly the result of area doctors retiring because many of them are at or past retirement age. However Ward says it’s too early to know why the region should also expect a nurse practitioner shortage. Ward says the impending shortage is not unique to the Almaguin and Muskoka areas. Rather he says the shortage is something being felt across the province and country. By getting a task force off the ground sooner than later, Ward says it’s the MAOHT’s hope that solutions can be reached before the shortage reaches a significant level. The task force is made up of health-care providers, economic development officials and municipal council representation from the various town councils. Ward says the makeup will provide a wide field of views that will give the task-force members a lot to consider. “When we develop an approach we have to think about how we attract physicians and nurse practitioners, what will keep them here, what’s in it for their families and are there jobs for the spouses,” Ward said. Ward recognizes the region will be competing with other communities for those future primary-care professionals but having something in place now to deal with the shortage “allows us to get a head of it a bit.” One challenge the task force has to address is recognizing the attitudes of younger health-care providers have changed since their predecessors first entered the medical field. “They're looking more for a work-life balance,” Ward said. “New physicians will not work the 70 hours a week physicians have in the past. We may not be able to do a one-to-one replacement. So when a physician retires, it doesn’t necessarily mean you only need one (doctor) to replace the workload.” Ward says the other challenge for the task force is how to entice young medical students to practise in rural and small communities. “It’s a classic situation,” he said. “New students want to go to big centres because in their mind there is more to learn, more equipment and potentially more money because hospitals are bigger. We always face that.” Ward says there are advantages to working in smaller communities and the task force will have to sell that message to potential health-care workers. And should the task force succeed in attracting more primary care professionals, Ward says the area has to have housing solutions in place. He says this is where the task force has to work with the Ontario government. “We need to make it clear that we’re not going to be able to attract good people to this area if we don’t have reasonably priced housing,” Ward said. Ward said recently there was reason to celebrate when it was announced the medical schools in the province would expand their student enrolment. The Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) was included in that seating expansion. “We got some extra seats and that’s great but we're still going to need more,” he said. He says the task force will discuss this with the NOSM sometime in the future. He says it will also work with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario to determine how to increase medical school student enrolment still further. Not counting seasonal homeowners, the Muskoka and Almaguin region represent about 63,000 full-time residents. Ward says right now among these residents are people who are still on a waiting list to get a family physician. Ward and his wife fall into that category although both have their current medical needs looked after by a nurse practitioner in Huntsville. Ward notes the timing is good to have the task force in place now because if the area ignores the anticipated shortage matters will quickly get worse. An example of not being prepared is if any doctor in the MAOHT coverage area decides to retire, the question becomes who looks after the orphaned patients if a replacement isn't found. Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget