Ontario's main political parties are promising to hire more doctors and nurses and increase the number of spaces at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine to address the need for health-care workers in the region — a problem that a hospital president says requires both immediate and long-term solutions.
The longstanding shortage of health-care workers in the region has prompted numerous calls for significantly increased investment in the sector to address local shortfalls, often accompanied by warnings about the consequences of inaction on the issue.
Such shortages forced the Margaret Cochenour Memorial Hospital in Red Lake, Ont., to close its emergency room for 24 hours at one point in late March due to a shortage in local physicians able to work in the department.
Sue LeBeau, the hospital's CEO, said the 24-hour closure was "very difficult" for hospital staff and created "a sense of anxiety" in the Red Lake community, which recently experienced two forest fires and flooding.
"It was quite terrifying, actually," LeBeau said, noting there was a period of about five hours during which both the hospital's ambulances were more than 200 kilometres away carrying patients to another facility.
"It's something that I think our staff and our physicians are still grappling with."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said it's been clear for "quite some time" that residents in the north don’t have equitable access to health-care, including doctors and nurses.
To address the problem, she said her party would immediately hire and recruit 300 doctors in northern Ontario, including 100 specialists and 40 mental health practitioners, and train more doctors and health professionals to work in the north by expanding the number of seats and training opportunities at NOSM University.
But Horwath said the province also needs to do more to attract health-care workers — and their families — to live in northern Ontario by bolstering offerings in areas ranging from schools to artistic and recreational opportunities.
"We have to make sure that northern communities are places where doctors want to bring their spouses and their families, and so making sure that those communities have the offerings that will attract people to set down roots there is also a big part of our commitment," she said during an interview in Mississauga, Ont.
Community connection is a concern for Dr. Akila Whiley, 32, who trained in Toronto, moved to Red Lake in July 2020 and has worked at the Margaret Cochenour Hospital ever since. She is now the chief of staff, but is feeling burnt out after being one of only about four physicians currently at the emergency department.
“I've come to this very sobering realization that I can't do this for much longer. … I find myself being a little short and my biggest fear is I'm going to make a mistake," Whiley said, noting her lack of family in the area is also exacerbating her stress.
“I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on this career and now I’m here, but I’ve really not spent a lot of time on relationships and things that actually mean more to me than my work," she said. “I’m unattached and finding it very isolating working all the time, because you can’t be with friends or meet any person when you’re constantly on call.”
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said his party would increase the number of spaces available at NOSM University and hire 100,000 new health-care workers across the province, including doctors and nurses, over six years.
Del Duca added that anybody who would like to pursue their university studies in health-care and is prepared to practise in underserved, remote and rural communities, including in the north, won't have to pay any tuition if his party is elected.
"We're going to make it that much easier for you if you're prepared to go and work in those communities that need the help," he said Saturday during a campaign stop in Toronto's west end.
"That is very clear, targeted support that will go ... right at the heart of the challenge that we're facing."
The Progressive Conservatives, who are seeking re-election, introduced a plan before the campaign to invest $142 million to support nurses’ tuition reimbursements in exchange for service in underserved communities across Ontario and train more doctors through the expansion of medical education spaces, with 160 undergraduate seats and 295 postgraduate positions proposed over the next five years.
The Tories also said they would make it easier and quicker for health workers with foreign credentials to begin practising in Ontario by reducing barriers to registering with and being recognized by health regulatory colleges.
"(Party Leader) Doug Ford is getting it done by adding more nurses, doctors, and personal support workers, building Ontario with much-needed hospitals and long‐term care beds, and supporting seniors so they can receive care and stay in the comfort of their own homes longer," the party said in a statement Saturday.
The Green Party, meanwhile, said it would double the Northern and Rural Recruitment and Retention Initiative and the Northern Physicians Retention Initiative to recruit 230 doctors and specialists in northern communities and expand the roles and scope of nurse practitioners as primary health care providers.
Among other promises, the Greens also said they would support expanded virtual care options for primary care providers and improve the availability of supports and services in French and Indigenous languages.
LeBeau said the Red Lake community "continues to be at risk" and now is the time for action.
"There will need to be some longer term solutions like increased spots in medical schools, increased residency spots, as well as some support for shorter term solutions like physician extenders, whether that's physician assistants or a nurse practitioner," she added.
"We can't, we don't have time to wait until the system catches up and educates enough physicians."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Noushin Ziafati and Jessica Smith, The Canadian Press