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Ontario doctors recommend focus on improving health-care access in the north

·2 min read

A group representing Ontario doctors is recommending culturally appropriate care, better internet connectivity, and offering physicians and medical students more training opportunities to improve health-care services in the province's north.

The Ontario Medical Association made the recommendations Monday in a report titled Prescription for Northern Ontario.

The professional group said addressing health-care challenges and service gaps in the north is a top priority as it looks at ways to transform health care provincewide. It is set to release a broader report on improving health services in Ontario later this week.

"Northern disparities in health care have existed for many years but the COVID-19 pandemic has made these gaps more visible and the need for solutions more urgent," Dr. Adam Kassam, president of the group, wrote in a statement Monday.

Health-care needs are growing in the large region with an aging population, the medical association said in its report.

It highlighted "more complex" challenges with chronic illnesses, mental health and addictions, shorter life expectancy and a dropping number of doctors in the region where geography, weather and infrastructure issues like unreliable internet create barriers to care.

"It's also hard to stay healthy when access to transportation, affordable food and secure housing are so limited. The social determinants of health – factors such as income, education, food security and housing – must be addressed, especially in the north," the report reads.

The document recommends a focus on addiction and mental-health issues, more social workers and mental health resources, linguistically appropriate services for francophone and Indigenous communities, and ensuring patients have access to care in their own communities.

It also recommends collaborating with Indigenous Services Canada and Health Canada on health resources in Indigenous communities and addressing issues like safe drinking water.

Internet connectivity would make it easier to support virtual care, though the report notes virtual services should not replace in-person health services that are in need of greater human resources.

The group said the need for more doctors and addressing long wait times emerged as top priorities during consultations this year.

The report called for creating training, rotation and education opportunities for doctors and medical students in the north and addressing education gaps in Indigenous communities that are tied to health.

It further recommended a review and update of incentives for physicians and other health-care workers to work in northern Ontario.

The report said a shortage of physicians is a provincewide issue that is most urgent in remote and northern communities.

To address the issue in the north, it recommended data-based analysis to help plan for doctor distribution, establishing best practices for physician supports, increasing medical student and residency positions based on forecasted population needs, and supporting students from remote, rural and racialized communities to attend medical school.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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