Southeast doctor shortage dire

Gary Rennie

The southeast corner of Essex County is one of the most under-serviced areas in Ontario for family physicians.

About 20,000 of almost 71,000 residents in that corner of the county don’t have a family doctor. With retirements looming, the shortage is only going to get worse.

So, Leamington, Kingsville and Essex councils were all publicly applauding a $2.4 million, five-year physician recruitment plan when it was pitched late last year.

But when it came to 2008 budget sessions, only Leamington came up with a guaranteed share of the funding.

Kingsville set money aside and agreed to look at specific requests on a case-by-case basis. Essex turned the plan down flat.

Frank Ricci, the Leamington lawyer heading up the physician, recruitment and retention committee, isn’t sure what went wrong. The committee didn’t get much feedback, he said.

Ricci said it wouldn’t be fair to pay for moving expenses or other inducements for a doctor lured to Kingsville and Essex using tax money coming from Leamington residents.

Ricci’s committee is returning to both Kingsville and Essex councils to explain the recruitment program again, Ricci said.

Essex and Kingsville were each asked for $457,000, spread over five years; Leamington’s share was $657,000. Funding from private sources and special events was also part of the plan to get to the $2.4-million total.

Essex Deputy Mayor Richard Meloche said some councillors were skeptical about the numbers of residents using Leamington District Memorial Hospital. Some felt the recruitment program would primarily benefit that municipality, he said.

“I think most of council believed it’s a good cause to support, just not to the extent they’re asking,” Meloche said.

A clearer picture of the benefits and costs would help change minds, Meloche said.

Most Essex residents — particularly those in the McGregor area — are probably going to Windsor hospitals, said Meloche.

But Ricci points to five years of statistics showing significant numbers of Kingsville and Essex residents using emergency, outpatient and other services at the Leamington hospital.

About 12 per cent of all Leamington hospital emergency room visits over a recent five-year period were from Essex. Over the same time, 10 per cent of births at Leamington hospital were to Essex residents and 15 per cent of outpatient cases.

Even without the full support of Kingsville and Essex, the recruitment effort has had notable success in the past year, said Leamington Hospital CEO Warren Chant.

Three full-time physicians have been added to alleviate the significant gap in emergency room care, bringing the total complement to four, Chant said.

As well, two family physicians, a surgeon and one internist have been recruited, with good prospects for another internist, said Chant. “This is quite a record,” he said.

Leamington’s family health centre has been able to take on new patients as a result, Chant said.

The problem is the hospital’s catchment area, which includes Wheatley, still doesn’t have enough doctors, Chant said. As many as 10 family physicians could retire in the next five years to make the situation worse, he said.

About 23 doctors should be added to offset retirements and bring levels of service up to appropriate levels, Chant said.

Leamington Deputy Mayor Rob Schmidt said his town’s residents understood the need to support the physician recruitment program. He was surprised Kingsville and Essex councils didn’t agree.

“We are one of the most under serviced areas of the province for physicians,” said Schmidt. “We have to do something.”

Many of the province’s 445 municipalities are offering hefty financial inducements for doctors to re-locate, Schmidt noted. The competition can’t be ignored, he said.

About the only controversy in Leamington was over the method for collecting its share for the recruitment program’s cost.

A fixed charge per property of $12.53 per year was levied and explained in a special notice.

The intent was to spread the cost out per household, and then eliminate the charge after five years, Schmidt said.

But issues not anticipated were arguments of unfairness from multiple property owners, especially those with vacant lots. Another problem was that apartment building owners got only one-charge, Schmidt said.

Council is still wrestling with ways of making the physician recruitment charge a little fairer for 2009, Schmidt said.

© The Windsor Star 2008

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