More than two million Ontarians, according to a recent report, do not have a family doctor and some tell CBC Toronto they are going to drastic lengths looking for solutions.
Although all levels of government have acknowledged the lack of access to a primary care practitioner as an issue, the figures gathered by the INSPIRE-Primary Health Care research group show how big the problem really is.
Dozens of patients and their families reached out to CBC News to tell their stories about their quest to find primary care in response to our survey. Here are a few of them.
In his 80s with no family doctor
Hugh Greenwood says he could never have imagined he’d be in his 80s and without access to a family physician.
But in July, his doctor announced he was closing his practice.
“For the first time in our 80 years, my wife and I are both without a family doctor,” said Greenwood.
He says he’s called doctors’ offices in Owen Sound, Ont. where he lives, as well as surrounding communities, but isn’t getting anywhere.
“We feel like we’ve been abandoned by the Ontario health system,” he said. “We’re elderly people on a pension and we don’t … have medical care at our disposal”
Greenwood says there are some walk-in clinics, but he doesn’t like that they don’t know his full health history.
With prescriptions about to run out, he says he wishes he had a doctor to turn to.
Cancer, stroke survivors have to drive for hours
Gail Cunningham, a cancer survivor, and her husband, who had a stroke earlier in the pandemic, have family doctors they love.
The problem? They’re now two to three hours away.
Following a stroke that affected her husband’s mobility, the couple moved to their cottage near Lakefield, Ont., a bungalow which didn’t have stairs, Cunningham says.
Now the only driver of the pair, she says the more than four-hour round trip to Newmarket or Vaughan, where their current doctors are, leaves her exhausted.
“It takes a lot of stamina to do that, a lot of energy. And I’m just wiped right out when I get home,” she said.
Sometimes the household has used phone appointments to avoid the drive, but it leaves her concerned not all components of a check-up are completed.
Trying to switch to a doctor closer to their new home has proven impossible. The physicians in her area have wait lists, she says. And she says the province won’t allow her to use its tool to find a doctor, Health Care Connect, because she already has one.
Having any interruption in care is not an option given the household’s health concerns, she says.
“We’re trapped,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
‘We’re not accepting new patients’
Long drives are something Deb Kelly is considering for her family.
The Kingston, Ont. mom and two-time cancer survivor says her family doctor took an early retirement this fall.
Kelly has called many doctors in the area but keeps hearing voicemails saying, “We’re not accepting new patients.”
She’s added her family to Health Care Connect, but hasn’t heard anything yet and is increasingly worried. She recently went as far as asking a relative if their doctor, more than four hours away, might be taking patients.
“It’d be better to have a doctor four or five hours away, then not have one,” she said.
She says preventive medicine and continuity of care have become increasingly important given her cancer history and a family history of heart disease, making walk-in clinics a poor option, she says.
Finding a ‘good fit’
The issues of finding primary care plague the province’s large urban centers also.
Alia Torres returned to live in Canada after a four year absence. She was disappointed to find her nurse practitioner, one she said had been a perfect fit, had left his practice.
“He had made me feel really comfortable. He listened to my concerns,” she said.
Now Torres is on the hunt for a new primary care provider, but recommendations from friends have led to disappointment when doctors say they aren’t taking new patients, she says.
While she has heard of the Health Care Connect service, she says the “right fit” is important to her and she’s concerned about speaking to a doctor she doesn’t feel comfortable with after some negative experiences.
Torres has joined a Toronto doctor’s wait list.
“It’s kind of ironic that I spent so much time singing the praises of the Canadian health-care system,” she said.
“I kept telling all my friends how great health-care was in Canada… and now I can’t even find a doctor.”
‘All hands on deck,’ the province says
Hannah Jensen, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Health, told CBC News in a statement, “We are taking an all hands-on deck approach to expand our province’s health-care workforce so Ontarians across the province can have access to more services in their community, shorter wait times and greater access to high-quality care.”
She says the government has hired 60,000 new nurses since 2018 and 8,000 new doctors have registered to work in the province.
She encouraged people to use the Health Care Connect service or the Find a Doctor search through the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.
Natalie Mehra, the executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, an advocacy group, says the province’s Health Care Connect’s program is “totally not working.”
“In those areas where it’s hard to find a family doctor, we hear that people just never get an answer,” he said. People sign up and “nothing happens.”
The coalition has been able to help people find primary care for themselves, but in some regions they have nowhere to suggest that people turn. Mehra says that will change only if the province hires more health-care workers and gives community clinics more support, among other measures
And while most Ontarians who’d like one do have a family doctor, the situation is “really awful” for those who don’t, he says.