Doctor shortage diagnosed; 14.8% of residents surveyed don't have family physician

By Ann Lukits
http://www.thewhig.com

It took a team of government researchers just five days to discover what Kingstonians have been saying for years: The city doesn’t have nearly enough family doctors.

A door-to-door survey of Kingston households by Statistics Canada found that 14.8 per cent of adult men and women – or 13,360 permanent city residents – don’t have a family doctor.

The survey, released yesterday by the city’s economic development corporation, also found that people have just as much trouble finding doctors if they have a high school diploma or a university degree.

“It’s nice to finally have some quantifiable data to look at,” Jeff Gouveia, the city’s physician recruiter, told the Whig-Standard yesterday. “I believe it does show we have a very significant issue on our hands with the shortage of family physicians.”

The survey findings are based on a population of 90,270, the number of residents aged 18 and over who live in Kingston, according to the 2006 census. The actual population of Kingston is 117,207.

Because the survey excluded residents of nursing homes, apartment buildings, prisons, CFB Kingston, and children, Gouveia believes the actual number of doctor-less residents is just over 17,000 – or closer to the 20,000 that’s usually quoted.

Councillor Rob Hutchison, who had asked city council before the StatsCan survey to spend $17,000 on a scientifically valid survey of its own, said yesterday that he no longer sees a need for the municipal study.

“It shows that Mr. Gouveia’s anecdotal evidence was accurate,” Hutchison said. “It’s exciting, in a sense. Now we’ve got something that can’t be really easily refuted.”

Paul Huras, CEO of the South East Local Health Integration Network, the regional authority responsible for health care in this area, said he was surprised by the StatsCan findings. Huras said other surveys have put the number of people without family doctors at closer to eight per cent.

“At some point you’ve got to stop surveying and recognize that the issue is accessing primary health care,” Huras said. “Whether it’s 14 per cent or eight per cent, it’s an issue.”

Despite the grim picture that the survey paints of the difficulties obtaining basic health care in Kingston, Gouveia said the StatsCan findings will probably help the city recruit more doctors, simply because they prove the need is real.

The provincial Health Ministry recently turned down a city application for “under-serviced” status, which would have given Kingston access to government incentive money to attract new physicians. Ironically, government bureaucrats concluded that Kingston has an “over-supply” of family doctors.

Meantime, Kingston city council has set aside $200,000 in the 2008 budget for a physician recruitment package that Gouveia hopes will help the city compete with other communities in southeastern Ontario.

Statistics Canada surveyed 702 private homes in all parts of the city. Of those surveyed, 15.7 per cent said they didn’t have a family doctor because none were available, 16.6 per cent said doctors weren’t taking new patients and 10.9 per cent said their doctor had either stopped practising or retired.

A surprising 20 per cent of residents said they don’t have a family doctor and don’t want one.

The survey also found that women are more likely to seek health services in a hospital emergency room or walk-in medical clinics than men. Twelve per cent of women had visited a clinic three times or more in the past year compared to 4.2 per cent of men.

Gouveia said that Kingston and the Islands MPP John Gerretsen is still hoping to meet with Health Minister George Smitherman to discuss the city’s failed under-serviced application.

But the local health integration network’s Huras said that pursuing under-serviced status is essentially a waste of time.

“Academic health science communities will always have trouble getting the designation,” he said, noting that despite the shortage of doctors in Kingston, smaller communities are always in a worse predicament.

Meantime, Gouveia is pursuing a proposal to allow foreign-trained doctors to work in long-term care facilities located in communities that aren’t designated as under-serviced by family doctors. Under the current rules, those doctors – called international medical grads – can only work in designated communities.

Gouveia said his goal is to recruit about 10 new family doctors to Kingston in 2008. He said the StatsCan survey results “should open up a lot of doors for us on the recruitment front.”

The survey was carried out between Nov. 21 and 26, 2007. The report is available online at http://www.kingstoncanada.com.

alukits@thewhig.com

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