A group of family physicians held a meeting on Monday evening to talk about alternative career paths because it says the practise of family medicine is not sustainable in Ontario.
Dr. Ramsey Hijazi, founder of the Ontario Union of Family Physicians, a group of more than 1,700 doctors, said the organization had planned a mass movement of doctors to take a “coordinated day off” on Monday but decided to hold a virtual meeting instead to avoid any impact on patient care. About 150 family doctors took part in the career summit.
Hijazi, a family physician in Ottawa, said the point of the meeting was to draw attention to the crisis that family doctors are facing. He said family medicine in Ontario is unsustainable because of inadequate funding from the Ontario health ministry and the amount of time that family doctors have to spend on administrative work, which is estimated to be roughly 19 hours a week.
“It really speaks to how dire the situation is and frankly how desperate family physicians are,” he said.
Hijazi said after the meeting that the doctors talked about the possibility of transitioning out of family medicine into other fields, such as hospital or cosmetic medicine.
“It gave a lot of physicians a sense that there are options out there and you don’t have to feel you have no control over your situation in the future,” he said.
Hijazi said the meeting was intended also to draw attention to what doctors believe is lack of goodwill by the health ministry in its negotiations with the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) for the next physician services agreement, which determines how much money physicians can bill the government for providing care under OHIP.
The current agreement expires on March 31. The OMA represents over 43,000 physicians, medical students and retired physicians in the province.
In an online petition, the union says it’s important to recognize that family doctors are small business owners who face “significant” financial challenges.
“Family doctors in Ontario are paid by the government through funding intended to cover various expenses such as rent, staff salaries, nursing services, electronic medical records, computers, phone bills, utilities, and more. However, this funding has remained stagnant for far too long and has failed to keep up with rising costs and inflation. As a result, family doctors struggle to meet their basic operational expenses,” the petition reads.
‘Our government needs to support primary care’
Dr. Alia Dharamsi, a staff physician in the emergency department at University Health Network, said she is not surprised that physicians are mobilizing to make their voices heard. She is not part of the group.
“Our government needs to support primary care. That’s the bottom line. We need family physicians. They’re the backbone of our health-care system. They’re the scaffolding. Without them, everything collapses,” she said.
“What we know is that the population is expanding, our population is aging, the needs of people in the health-care system are only ballooning and expanding, but what’s not expanding is the financial support for our family physicians,” she added.
“You can’t have finite resources supporting an infinite growing population.”
In a statement on Monday, the OMA said it was aware of the meeting and noted that doctors are not permitted to strike under its agreement with the government.
“We appreciate the significant challenges family doctors are facing. We also appreciate the frustrations they face with system-level barriers to practicing comprehensive family medicine,” the statement reads.
The OMA said fixing the crisis in family medicine is one of its top priorities.
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Ontario says it’s making ‘record investments’
The health ministry, for its part, said in a statement on Monday that it is adding thousands of physicians by expanding medical schools, including at the University of Ottawa, and expanding interdisciplinary primary care teams, which it says will connect 98 per cent of Ontario residents to a primary care provider.
In a news release on Feb. 1, Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones said the province is investing $110 million to connect up to 328,000 people to primary care teams, which she said will bring the province closer to connecting everyone in Ontario to primary care.
“Our government is making record investments to ensure that everyone that wants to have a primary care provider can connect to one,” Jones said in the release. “While there is more work to do, giving hundreds of thousands of more Ontarians the opportunity to connect to primary care brings us that much closer to this goal.”