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'A very difficult day': Group Health Centre dropping another 10,000 patients

An additional 6,000 patients are at risk of losing primary care in near future if trends continue; Sault MPP Romano to launch task force to look for solutions to crisis
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Group Health Centre. File photo, Darren Taylor/SooToday

Approximately 10,000 Group Health Centre patients will lose access to their primary care provider and the same-day clinic services at GHC as of May 31, 2024.

The news came through a GHC news release and a news conference held this morning by GHC officials, Sault MPP Ross Romano and Sault Mayor Matthew Shoemaker.

That number of affected patients could grow even higher in the months to come.

“We’ve identified an additional 6,000 patients at risk of losing primary care in the near future if the trends continue. I know and fully appreciate the implications of this announcement and of those numbers and the effect that this will have on our community,” said Dr. Jodie Stewart, Algoma District Medical Group CEO and chair at Thursday’s news conference.

“Due to a severe shortage of primary care providers provincially and nationally we have been unable to find replacements for providers who have closed their practices over the last several years at Group Health Centre,” Stewart said.

As SooToday reported last summer, the Group Health Centre has already "de-rostered" nearly 3,000 patients over the past six years, pinning the blame on the worsening doctor shortage. 

Stewart said that many long-serving family doctors have retired with no replacements on the horizon.

She said that across Ontario, fewer medical students are choosing family medicine and that younger family doctors are leaving primary care due to an overwhelming amount of paperwork involved in the profession.

“Currently, roughly half our time is spent doing administrative tasks when we very much rather prefer to be seeing patients,” Stewart told SooToday.

It has been suggested by medical observers that doctors’ administrative assistants should be given the authority to tackle some of the paperwork doctors face in order to free their hands to take better care of their patients.

“That is definitely one of the solutions to keep family doctors doing office-based primary care,” Stewart said.

“We’re doing a large amount of administrative work. I would say roughly 20 hours a week per position is spent doing administrative tasks. There’s a multitude of things, I think, that could help reduce that. There are many solutions that could help reduce that burden that would allow us to spend more time seeing patients.” 

Stewart said that GHC is asking for emergency funding to stabilize operations and prevent more patients from losing their family doctors or nurse practitioners. The funding would also provide access to healthcare navigation programs currently available in southern Ontario and for consideration to allow GHC's ratio of allied healthcare professionals to match those of other family health teams and to prioritize mental health services with future health team members.

Sault MPP Romano was asked about offering more incentives for family doctors to set up their practices at GHC.

“We’re looking at various different incentives to participate. This is again one of those critical opportunities to bring the right people to the table and have those conversations so that we can have a better appreciation of how we get to the point. I certainly think it’s time that we look at some northern-based solutions for this type of challenge.” 

“Bottom line, we’ve got to figure something out here,” Romano said. “This is a very difficult day for our community."

“I learned this news just shy of a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time meeting with different individuals across our community, in the healthcare field in particular, trying to get some kind of an answer, trying to figure out what happened and why and quite frankly I’m exceptionally frustrated.”

“I’m ticked off to put it mildly and I think that you all share those sentiments as well,” Romano said.

Romano said he has been speaking with local medical experts and the Minister of Health on a daily basis regarding the crisis.

“In the last few weeks I’ve reviewed every application that our community has for funding to the Ministry of Health and I will continue to do that.”

“Hopefully I’ll be in a position to come back and see you all in a couple of weeks to a month with some kind of news of a positive nature to demonstrate movement of the needle on the principal goal of ensuring that every person who wants access to primary care can have access to primary care.”

Romano said a task force of local health professionals to address the problem will be formed, and he wants that task force to have its first meeting on March 1.

He said the task force’s work will continue as a years-long project well beyond May 31 — the day 10,000 GHC patients will lose access to their primary care provider and the same-day clinic services.

“This is something that we’ve been talking about for too long and perhaps today’s extremely challenging news is going to be the opportunity for us to be able to move forward from it,” Romano said.

“The Algoma District Medical Group will be informing patients of those Primary Care Providers who have recently retired or left their practices that they will no longer have primary care services. To ensure that every impacted individual is informed as quickly as possible, each patient will receive a detailed letter with more information,” a GHC release stated.

“It’s a difficult day for sure,” said Sault Mayor Matthew Shoemaker.

“I’ll be looking to have council authorize an expansion of the scope of the physician recruitment committee to be the physician recruitment and primary care recruitment committee so that we can recruit nurse practitioners to assist with a lot of this work and other primary care providers that we can access and recruit into our community.”

Shoemaker said that council has recently increased the budget for that committee, which includes City of Sault Ste. Marie, GHC and Sault Area Hospital representatives as well as local physicians.

GHC nurse practitioner Carrie Perra left her practice in the fall of 2023, affecting more than 900 patients.

Stewart said that a doctor or nurse practitioner has not been found to specifically replace Perra but that GHC hired one nurse practitioner and one physician from the United Kingdom last year.

But those efforts have not done nearly enough to ease the doctor shortage at GHC.

“It’s unfortunately not at the level that we need to avoid this news today,” Stewart said.

“Sault Ste. Marie is very important to me. That makes today even more difficult because I know that this news greatly affects my friends, my neighbours and my family,” Stewart said.

She said she is grateful to doctors - some of whom practiced medicine for four or five decades - who postponed retirement hoping that new doctors would join GHC, as well as temporary locum doctors who came out of retirement, nurse practitioners and other trained healthcare workers who have stepped in to help with activities such as cervical cancer screening and diabetic care.

“Our health care system is facing unprecedented pressure and accessing primary healthcare is becoming increasingly challenging. We recognize the profound impact on our patients, their loved ones and the community at large,” said Lil Silvano, Group Health Centre president and CEO.

Silvano said GHC is bracing itself for complaints from displaced patients.

“We are in the process of issuing letters to all the patients impacted today. We do anticipate to receive this feedback. This has a profound effect on our community. It ripples through all of us, really. The impact is beyond 10,000 people because these are our family and friends that are impacted so we do anticipate that.”

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Darren Taylor

About the Author: Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor is a news reporter and photographer in Sault Ste Marie. He regularly covers community events, political announcements and numerous board meetings. With a background in broadcast journalism, Darren has worked in the media since 1996.
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