More than 170,000 patients in Ontario lost their family doctors in the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study.
The study, led by Unity Health Toronto and the nonprofit research institute ICES, found that the number of family doctors who stopped working doubled between March and September 2020 compared to the same period a year earlier.
This equates to nearly three percent of Ontario’s practicing family doctors, officials said.
On average, between April and September 2010 to 2019, the researchers say about 1.6 percent of family doctors stopped working.
“Nearly 1.8 million Ontarians do not have a regular family doctor,” Dr. Tara Kiran, the study’s lead author and a family physician at Unity Health Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, said in a statement.
“Our findings suggest that things are only going to get worse, which is really concerning because family medicine is the gateway to our healthcare system.”
The study found that about 385 of 12,000 doctors left their practice, and that those who did were more likely to be 75 or older and see fewer than 500 patients.
The findings also suggest that many of these doctors were nearing retirement and fast-tracked their plans during the pandemic.
The study emphasizes that it cannot prove that the pandemic was a direct cause of the exodus and cites other possible reasons, such as health problems, higher practice costs due to infection prevention and control measures, drop in income due to reduced visits and exhaustion.
“Further research is needed to understand the long-term impact on primary care adherence and access to care and the broader impact on population health,” the study says.
The researchers also noted that while 385 physicians does not appear to be that many when looking at the total number of family physicians in Ontario, “more than half of the physicians who stopped working had formally enrolled patients on their list and estimated that the doctors cared for more than 170,000 patients.”
“The shortage of family doctors and other primary care providers is a complex issue across Canada related to aging physicians and patients, increasing patient and system complexity, declining interest in family medicine among medical school graduates and workforce maldistribution, which especially affects rural areas,” study co-author Dr. Rick Glazier said in a statement.
“These pre-existing factors have been exacerbated by the pandemic and call for fundamental changes in the way we organize, pay, support and deliver care.”
As a result, the researchers call for a reassessment of the payment model for family doctors, saying the model should generate more predictable revenue and provide flexibility for doctors. They also suggest expanding primary care teams to include other health professionals, including social workers, pharmacists and nurses.