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Docs tell Queen’s Park committee healthcare situation in the north is ‘dire’

Northern Ontario physicians tells standing committee in pre-budget consultations that northerners live shorter, sicker lives than the rest of the province, but healthcare priorities don’t reflect that

The Ontario Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs at Queen's Park was told Tuesday that provincial healthcare spending must be increased in order to meet the growing problems of access to health care across Northern Ontario. 

Northern members of the Ontario Medical Association spoke online to the pre-budget committee hearings to stress the importance of improving health care.

"And the message from Ontario doctors is simple: health care spending must be prioritized especially in Northern Ontario, where the situation is most dire," said Dr. Stephen Cooper, chair of the OMA District 9, which is northeastern Ontario.

He and Dr. Sarah Newbery of Marathon, Ont., which is in OMA District 10,  said in a joint submission that just getting access to health care in the North is a problem. Newbery said roughly 89 per cent of Northerners report they have a healthcare provider, which is below the Ontario average of 94 per cent. 

"Life expectancy in the north is two and a half to three years less than the Ontario average. And we know that Northern Ontario as a whole is short 325 physicians; family physicians, internists, pediatricians, psychiatrist anesthetists, and several subspecialists," said Newbery. 

She added that 325 physicians would make up the next five yearly classes at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.  

"But we can't wait five years for those physicians. We need them now," said Newbery. 

Cooper said mental health and addiction challenges were a significant problem in Northern Ontario before the pandemic. Since then, things have gotten worse, he said. 

"The challenges in mental health and addiction are the most common problems I see," Cooper added. 

He said the pandemic has pushed the medical community toward "embracing" the idea of virtual care, which Cooper said is especially important in Northern Ontario. 

"For the north with its large geography virtual care has always been critical to providing access to medical care, mental health and addiction medicine," said Cooper.

The current OHIP billing codes for virtual care telephone and video visits are due to expire in September. 

"It's time to accept the virtual care standard and make the temporary OHIP codes permanent," said Cooper. 

"Great as it is, virtual care must never be considered as a replacement for clinical shortages in Northern Ontario. It does not and should never replace in-person care."

Cooper also told the committee the OMA launched a comprehensive action plan just last fall called Prescription for Ontario. It followed numerous consultations held across Ontario and outlined ways that Ontario must get the health care system back on track.

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. He covers health care in Northern Ontario.