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'Betrayed': After 60 years with Group Health, elderly couple on list of de-rostered patients

Murray Patterson and his wife Eunice — a former employee at GHC — first became patients at the centre in 1964; now 92 and 88, they will lose their doctor in June
Laurie Kendrick with parents Murray and Eunice Patterson, the two seniors soon to be among over 10,000 Group Health Centre patients to lose access to a primary care provider.

The Sault’s Murray and Eunice Patterson are two of the more than 10,000 area residents soon to be de-rostered from the Group Health Centre’s patient list, losing access to their primary care provider.

The couple received the news, through a GHC letter dated March 29, that their physician will not be continuing to practice at the health care facility.

They were notified their de-rostering will take effect June 27.

“It was quite a shock,” Murray said in an interview with SooToday.

“I felt we had been betrayed [by GHC],” Eunice said.

The doors of the GHC opened to patients in September of 1963. The Pattersons have been GHC patients since 1964, when Eunice began working at the facility as a registered nursing assistant. She retired in 1991.

The couple was encouraged to find another primary care provider through registering with Ontario’s Health Care Connect online or by calling that service’s toll free number.

No explanation was offered to the Pattersons as to why their primary care provider — who is not of retirement age — will not continue practicing at GHC.

Neither were they informed as to whether that physician will be practicing elsewhere in Sault Ste. Marie.

“We got transferred to this doctor (approximately 10 years ago) and we thought ‘we’ve got it made.’ You spend most of your life with them and then they throw you to the wolves with no answers for you,” Murray said.

“We thought we’d be alright,” Eunice said. “I didn’t like the way they did it. I thought that they should have looked after their senior people first and they didn’t do it that way. I was one of the first people working there.”

“I called the Group Health Centre. I asked them ‘how was this determined?’” said daughter Laurie Kendrick.

“I asked ‘why aren’t the people who were on your rosters first the last to go?’ The first arrival is last to go. In any union environment that would be the way they would do it. They said the decision was not made by the Group Health Centre but by the Ministry of Health.” 

"I have no animosity toward my parents' doctor or any of the doctors that have left the GHC. They must make the best choices for themselves and their families. I am sure they have lost sleep over their patients. But we know that the GHC can transfer people from doctor to doctor because they've done it when doctors have retired. So it’s not like this is an impossible task to do,” Kendrick said.

Though not alone in being de-rostered as GHC patients, the elderly couple’s need for a primary care provider — like other de-rostered seniors — is greater than many others.

Murray is 92, Eunice is 88.

Both are taking doctor-prescribed medications, have mobility issues and use walkers.

Murray is recovering from a stroke.

“My mom has physical limitations so she requires care and in the last six months she’s been at the hospital several days in a row. She’s been admitted. She has these issues and now she won’t have a family doctor following her,” Kendrick said.

“They have those needs and now there will be no family doctor following them. They’ll go to a walk-in clinic. Their alternative is to go to the hospital and when mom was there last we had waits of 12 to 18 hours,” Kendrick said.

Losing access to a primary care provider and being faced with visits to walk-in clinics or long waits at Sault Area Hospital’s emergency department is difficult for patients of all ages and worse for seniors, the Pattersons said.

“We’ll have to go to a walk-in clinic. You go in there and it’s a stranger. They don’t know you,” Eunice said.

“I don’t feel good about it. I know I’m not alone but I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Murray said.

“How does this happen?” Kendrick said, her eyes filling with tears.

“How can this happen that people who have been rostered patients at the Group Health Centre for 60 years — and there’s more like them — get de-rostered? There was no thought about that by the Ministry of Health. I think they just thought ‘we’re not going to spend any time figuring out what the fair way is, we’re just going to say whoever their doctor is, they’re gone.’ And that’s not okay for the elderly.” 

“I think they should do an investigation into how they do their de-rostering. This has devastated our community,” Eunice said.

“I think it should be looked into,” Murray agreed.

Not having access to continual and consistent care from a primary care provider for elderly patients is worrisome for herself and her parents, Kendrick said.

“I don’t have comfort. Nobody's monitoring them. Somebody can order their blood work but who’s going to check that work? And then if you get it checked and there’s something off you have to call the walk-in clinic again to get their medication adjusted.”

Kendrick, a retiree, said she is glad she is available and able to navigate her parents through their current healthcare challenges.

“It takes a lot of her time. She’s entitled to a retirement too,” Murray said.

“I do not mind,” Kendrick responded.

Kendrick said she worries for other de-rostered patients without family members to help.  

“I feel bad for my parents but I also feel really bad for people who are seniors who may be alone with no family here. Really, truly, there are going to be people who die because they won’t have a doctor. They’ll think ‘I just can’t get myself out to a walk-in clinic.’ They have to navigate all that. Maybe they don’t drive any more. Maybe they don’t have somebody who can take them there and advocate for them.”

“If they take away more seniors’ ability to access a doctor they’re going to have more seniors taking beds in the hospital because they're going to be sicker when they get there. I really think they (the Ministry of Health) should be reviewing what they did. They should go through the Group Health Centre rosters and then correct it,” Kendrick said. 

It was announced in January that approximately 10,000 Group Health Centre patients would lose access to their primary care provider and the same-day clinic services at GHC as of May 31, 2024.

A total of 10,176 patients will be affected.

During January's announcement, Dr. Jodie Stewart, Algoma District Medical Group CEO and chair said that many long-serving family doctors have retired with no replacements on the horizon.

That followed a July 2023 GHC announcement that the health care facility had already de-rostered 3,000 patients over a six-year period.

It is feared another 6,000 GHC patients will be de-rostered by GHC if current trends continue.

It is estimated that approximately 30,000 people in the Sault and area are without a primary care provider.

Medical observers have stated 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,” Dr. Jodie Stewart, Algoma District Medical Group CEO and chair told SooToday after GHC’s January de-rostering announcement.

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

“I think the doctors are walking away from it (paperwork). I think they’re fed up with all this,” Eunice said.

Kendrick agrees that is part of the problem.

“I’ve watched and seen them sit at their computers and they’re there for half an hour or 45 minutes, making notes on the patients they’re seeing, so I think it’s way too much paperwork. When I was a student I worked at the Group Health Centre and the women that worked there got the recordings from the doctors and they would write up the records for it. The doctors didn’t have to do that.”

Kendrick agreed that the establishment of family health teams are a part of the solution to the family doctor shortage problem, as well as allowing more internationally-trained physicians to practice medicine in Ontario.

“They were told. There were committees put together. 15 or 20 years ago they identified that there was going to be a problem as doctors started to retire. These task forces have been in place before and they've been told. Somehow there’s not enough communication. I don’t know where the weak link is,” Kendrick said.

“I think they’ve had plenty of time to work the knots out of the system and give you proper care,” Eunice added. 

“I think it’s really awful and very stressful at this point in their lives, when they’re less able to cope with these changes, that this is what they have to contend with,” Kendrick said.

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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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