Island physician urges province to prioritize N. Ontario healthcare

Dr. Stephen Cooper

MANITOULIN – Healthcare spending must be prioritized, especially in Northern Ontario. That’s the message Dr. Stephen Cooper gave (virtually) to the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs at the Ontario Legislature on January 11 during pre-budget consultations. Dr. Cooper is a family physician on Manitoulin Island and is currently the District 9 chair of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA).

“Lots of gaps in healthcare need to be addressed,” he told the committee. Last October, the OMA released ‘Prescription for Ontario: Doctors’ 5-Point Plan for Better Health Care’ following “the largest stakeholder and public consultation in its 140-year history to understand where those gaps are and how to fix them.” 

The plan contains 75 recommendations to improve healthcare in Ontario; it also contained 12 specific recommendations for improving delivery of care in Northern Ontario. “I don’t think there’s anything in the report that should be surprising to anyone in the ministry or doctors or actually, people in Ontario,” he told The Expositor. “All the politicians I’ve spoken to and the healthcare leaders have the same story over and over again: access is an issue. Getting to see a doctor and typically since the pandemic, wait times have been a huge problem. We wanted to point out to the finance and economics committee that there’s a link between a functioning healthcare system and the economy.”

The link is even more pronounced in Northern Ontario, he told the committee. “What is the health care like there, and are there human doctors available in the community? A strong healthcare system in the North would not only support our important resources, recreation and retirement industries but help attract new businesses, residents and investments, bringing new opportunities for young people.”

That’s evident on Manitoulin Island where restaurants and businesses have been affected by the pandemic. “With wait times people can’t get back to work because they have mental health issues that aren’t being addressed or they have orthopedic issues that aren’t being addressed. They can’t get their knee fixed so they can’t go back because they work in construction. So, there is a really clear link to wait lists and how the economy runs,” he explained.

Just over 89 percent of people in the Northeast report having a primary care provider, which is well below the Ontario average of 94 percent. Northern Ontario is short 325 family doctors, internists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, anaesthesiologists and other sub-specialists. Many of Dr. Cooper’s patients have to travel to Barrie or Toronto for specialist care, he told the committee. 

Wait times have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and the North, disproportionately affected by mental health and addiction challenges pre-pandemic, now faces a significantly worse situation. “I can say from my shifts in the emergency department that the challenges in mental health and addiction are the most common problem,” he said. 

Expanded mental health and addiction programs was one of the recommendations made in October. The other priorities brought forward in the plan were reducing wait times, improving home and community care, strengthening public health, and giving every patient a healthcare provider and linking them digitally. Those five priorities “resonate from our own experience over the many years of talking to patients and healthcare administrators,” said Dr. Cooper. 

The intent of the presentation to the committee was, “when the government was making budget decisions, to make sure they prioritize healthcare,” he added. “That was the big ask. For the North specifically, and across Ontario, the OMA would like to see more permanence for codes for managing patients virtually. Currently those are limited codes and many of them are going to expire in September. Personally, I would be very surprised if the ministry was to cancel those codes. It’s not a done deal so we want to make sure that isn’t the case.”

The other big ask from Northern Ontario was for a stronger medical education program on the North. “It would be helpful in recruiting physicians to the North,” Dr. Cooper said. “We know much of Ontario is short of physicians and I think the North is in particular trouble.”

The OMA would particularly like the ministry to consider residency programs. A student who is just beginning a residency program has anywhere between six and 10 years of training to go. “During the first year or two, they’re pretty wide open on where to live but I think when it gets closer to the end of training, which is the residency, it’s really important that they have an opportunity to work in the North and get comfortable working in the North so that they would consider the North as a place to live,” he said. “We’re asking the ministry to make it easier for residents to do rotations in the North. It’s currently a challenge. That challenge is accommodation and travel. It’s one thing if you’re living in Mississauga to do a rotation in Orangeville, but quite another thing if you’re living in Mississauga and doing a rotation in Timmins.”

Dr. Cooper was joined by Dr. Sarah Newbury of Marathon. Other organizations at the Northeastern Ontario session were the Beef Farmers of Ontario and the Ontario Association of Prosthetics and Orthotics. Many of the follow up questions by MPPs were directed at Dr. Cooper and Dr. Newbury. Dr. Cooper wasn’t surprised. “Mostly because I know from speaking with MPPs. When they speak with their constituents, healthcare is often the number one priority.”

MPP Michael Mantha thanked the doctors. “You guys are highlighting exactly what’s going on as far as challenges throughout Northern Ontario,” he said. “Across the North Shore, we are in crisis with the doctor recruitment program here. We’re very much aware of what’s going on in Thessalon, in Bruce Mines, and so on.”

“The OMA is interested in ensuring that during the election and also between elections, in the discourse between the people and the government, that our healthcare remains a top priority,” Dr. Cooper said. “We’re obviously biased on that kind of thing, but we do think it’s important.”