‘It’s embarrassing’: Kingston City Council calls on province to address physician shortage

Kingstonist file photo.

One week after hundreds of people lined up overnight in the chilly February weather in an attempt to secure a space with a family doctor, the pervasive local primary care physician shortage was on the agenda for Kingston City Council — both literally and figuratively.

In fact, while one item already on the agenda for the Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2024, meeting concerned the outcome thus far of Kingston’s physician recruitment strategy, a new motion was added to the agenda the day of the meeting, speaking directly to the alarming situation and the public evidence of it a week earlier.

Flashback to a week earlier

On Monday, Feb. 26 and Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, the CDK Family Medicine and Walk-In Clinic location on Sutherland Drive held open rostering, welcoming new patients. What happened next was a poignant display of just how drastic the family doctor shortage is in Kingston: multiple people turned up at the clinic on the night of Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. Those people were not mistaken about the date or time; they were there to hold a spot in line in hopes of garnering one of those coveted spots on the roster — and some were there to hold a spot for others.

For many, the incident was a glimpse into the troubling reality that faces hundreds of people in Kingston and area, and thousands more across the province. For others, it was a wake-up call. Dozens were shocked, frustrated, and angry to find out that the Health Care Connect program is not the sole way physicians fill their patient rosters (the term used for the number of patients of an array of different need levels one physician takes on).

Established before 2015, Health Care Connect is a program administered by the Ontario Ministry of Health to connect citizens who do not have a family doctor with doctors, clinics, or health networks that have openings available. For years, people without a primary care doctor have been directed to use the program to get on a waiting list to secure one.

As it turns out, what many assumed was the best way to go about ensuring they were queued up to be matched with a doctor or clinic is not the only way doctors fill their rosters. In fact, physicians don’t have to take patients on through the Health Care Connect program at all, according to the Ministry of Health.

When asked about the situation in Kingston and why the openings at the CDK Family Medicine location weren’t being filled through Health Care Connect, Hannah Jensen, Deputy Director of Communications, responded on behalf of the Office of the Honourable Sylvia Jones, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health.

“Health Care Connect is a voluntary program for patients and providers that helps Ontarians that need a primary care provider find one who is accepting new patients in their community. It is the providers’ choice to accept new patients[,] and patients are encouraged to continue their search for a provider while on this voluntary wait list,” Jensen wrote in an email to Kingstonist (bold text in original).

Jensen then provided a statement “on the access to primary care overall”: among other points, it referred to Premier Doug Ford’s Conservative government “adding over 10,400 new physicians since 2018… by launching the largest medical school expansion in 15 years,… and breaking down barriers for internationally and interprovincially educated health care workers to work in Ontario.” It also referred to the government expanding “interprofessional primary care teams… [to] ensure 98% of Ontarians are connected to a primary care provider over the next several years.”

Also last week, Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) Ted Hsu said he was aware of the lineups that had occurred and that he had spoken with CDK Family Medicine to find out what was going on. In general, Hsu said, the Health Care Connect program, while useful, is slow in processing. Furthermore, for doctors with a full roster to fill, that cannot be done in batches of more than one patient at a time — unless it has been somehow co-ordinated to coincide with the retirement of another doctor whose patients could be transferred, according to Dr. Ziny Yen, clinic owner and administrator at CDK Family Medicine.

The synopsis of what led to the lineups at the Sutherland Drive CDK location, according to both Hsu and Yen: Health Care Connect, while useful and helpful, moves slowly and does not allow doctors to onboard multiple patients at one time. With openings available and knowing the need, Dr. Yen and CDK Family Medicine decided to open the rostering up to the public, and the result pointed to the need they knew existed — but in a way they never intended.

In short: the best of intentions led to an outcome no one wanted, but that outcome was not the fault of those with the good intentions.

For his part, MPP Hsu said he intended to write to the Ministry of Health directly and, if he had not heard back before that, he would approach Jones just before or after Question Period on Thursday, Mar. 7, 2024.

“I am going to ask the ministry why the process is slow, how it could be speeded up, [and whether it could] be made automatic or something quicker than what was happening,” Hsu said.

“Because I think… there’s all these people who need doctors, and the intake is very slow from the Health Care Connect, [the] waiting lis… So I’m going to see why it’s so slow… [and] if it’s so slow, why hasn’t someone else complained about it?”

Hsu said he suspects there have been complaints, and that there are solutions to making the system work faster. He also said he would keep Kingstonist informed of anything he discovers as he “investigates” the situation.

This graphic depicts the way the doctor shortage in Ontario combined with the growing and aging population will only continue to intensify the situation unless it is addressed. Graphic via the Ontario Medical Association’s Doctor Shortage Fact Sheet, February 2024.

Back in Council Chambers

With all that happening only a week earlier, and with a report concerning physician recruitment for the City of Kingston in front of Council, it was expected that the topic would get lots of discussion at the March 4 council meeting. And it did — but not, ironically, when the report concerning physician recruitment was presented.

Council voted — unanimously and without discussion — in favour of receiving that report, ‘Update on Family Physician/Primary Care Recruitment Efforts in Kingston.’ The full report outlined the efforts so far and the results those efforts have reaped (including 14 family doctors brought into Kingston in the past 22 months), and it recommended that Council approve a $100,000 grant program for physician recruitment. The new program will build on the existing program, according to the report, and make use of the $1 million top-up funds for the efforts recently approved by Council.

“The new program being developed will provide a grant funding stream focused on the implementation of improved operational efficiency and innovation in family physician/primary care clinics. Family physicians in Kingston have shared that they spend as much as 40 per cent of their time on paperwork, which limits their time with patients. This new program would provide a one-time, $100K grant to clinics who achieve an 800-1,000 sustained increased inpatient clinic capacity (while also ensuring access),” the report reads, noting that the grant application will include a sustainability section for clinics to explain how they will continue to maintain the expansion once grant funds are spent.

The report then goes on to explain why this is necessary, while pointing to the thing that Council actually did debate: provincial responsibility.

“City staff understand and recognize that health care services are a responsibility of the provincial government and that municipalities do not receive adequate funding to finance health care services on an ongoing basis. The recent announcement of more than $4M to support the launch of the Periwinkle clinic model, while extremely welcome, will address only 10,000 of the more than 30,000 residents without primary care. The need for municipal participation in this important public policy issue remains,” the report states.

Not until the last minutes of the council meeting was the topic discussed, both at length and with passion.

A new motion, moved by Councillor Brandon Tozzo and seconded by Deputy Mayor Wendy Stephen, read as follows:

“Whereas health-care services, including primary care, [are] a provincial responsibility and the Province has not provided the City with any financial support for these family physician recruitment initiatives… Therefore Be It Resolved That the City of Kingston request that the Province of Ontario review service standards for underserviced communities, such as Kingston, and actively work with communities to increase access to primary care.”

The motion also resolved that Kingston request the Ministry of Health designate Kingston as an “area of high physician need” due to an issue that has proven very problematic for the health-innovation-forward Kingston: “the fact the ministry counts [as physicians] all researchers, teachers, and professors with a medical doctorate in Kingston’s catchment area, not just those practising family medicine.”

Finally, the motion resolved to request that the province establish “a regulatory framework to prevent municipalities from competing against each other for physicians and primary care providers” and that a copy of the motion be sent to the Ministry of Health, Minister Jones, a handful of area MPs and MPPs, and several municipal-facing boards throughout the province.

What councillors said

As the mover of the new motion, Tozzo, who represents Kingscourt-Rideau District, spoke to it first.

“I was shocked last week to see hundreds of people lined up in my district… just for the chance to get a family doctor. I think we all were. People lined up in the middle of the night in Canada in February just to get a family doctor. This is the kind of motion that I wish we didn’t need,” he said, pointing to the millions the City of Kingston has already committed to physician recruitment and to the that fact Mayor Bryan Paterson had used the term “madness” to refer to Council’s $2 million commitment to the cause, given that health care is a provincial responsibility.

People were lined up outside overnight, many with sleeping bags and blankets, in advance of the second day of new patients being accepted at CDK Family Medicine on Sutherland Avenue. This photo was reportedly taken just before 5:45 a.m. outside the clinic. Photo via post by Jovi Watt in the public ‘Kingston Ontario Community’ group on Facebook.

“In a country as prosperous as Canada with its commitment to health care for all, we have to ask and beg the provincial government to make sure we have enough family doctors for our constituents. It shouldn’t be this way,” Tozzo said.

These sentiments were reflected by every voice around the horseshoe that spoke to the new motion. Pittsburgh District Councillor Ryan Boehme candidly and emotionally spoke of the recent passing of his mother due to pancreatic cancer, something that might have been prevented had she had access to primary care sooner, he said.

“It’s not that you haven’t had enough time to fix it,” he continued, speaking to the Province of Ontario, “it’s just simply that you have been complacent. You’ve been having civil councils bear the brunt of this… It can’t go on — and literally, I’m going to say it bluntly: people are dying.”

But perhaps no words were as pointedly expressive as those spoken by Trillium District Councillor Jimmy Hassan, who said forthrightly, “I was born and raised in Pakistan, and that country’s always suffered with corruption and with the different political and social issues. But if I go there as of today and I need a physician, I have no shortage… I can pay, I can go to anything.”

“Myself, I have a hearing problem,” he continued. “I have been waiting for the last two years for just a specialist appointment. And I can’t go anywhere else.”

Councillor Jimmy Hassan addresses Kingston City Council on Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2024, sharing his personal story and the fact he could get access to a physician in his native Pakistan far more quickly than he can here in Canada. Screen captured image.

Hassan went on to describe residents of his district who have moved to Kingston from Ottawa or the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), only to find no doctors available locally. These residents continue to commute back and forth to their previous areas of residence just to maintain doctors’ appointments.

Hassan pointed out the image many people outside Canada have of our so-called beloved and valued health-care system — an image that doesn’t properly reflect the experiences of many of us, he expressed.

“It is not only here in Kingston, but in the entire country that we are suffering. This health-care system is collapsing… And then, as the municipal government, we are trying to do our best… knowing that is not our job, knowing that is not our jurisdiction. But we always agree that we can’t leave our citizens and our fellow Kingstonians helpless. We are trying to do our best, but I think this is a time where we have to send a message to the upper-level government to urge them to do something for our citizens,” Hassan continued.

“It’s really embarrassing,” he said. “I still feel that I’m living in a third world country, where no health care is available to the citizens…. Why are we ending up [like] this? This is [a] developed country. We are a country that is prosperous. We can provide our citizens better services. But we have failed to do so.”

Members of the public can view the full agenda from the meeting on the City of Kingston’s City Council meetings webpage, and the meeting can be viewed in full on the Kingston City Council YouTube channel.

2 thoughts on “‘It’s embarrassing’: Kingston City Council calls on province to address physician shortage

  • Health Connect is a joke and very misleading. When we moved to Kingston 7 years ago both my husband and I had good doctors. We were told to sign up with Health Connect to get a new doctor, and that we had to remove ourselves from our old doctors’ roster in order to be put on the list. What no one told us is that Health Connect does NOTHING to get you a doctor, and that doctors don’t have to use Health Connect. We lost access to our old doctors and it took us years to find a new one on our own.

    • That’s one of the worst problems with health care connect. They force you to break contact with a physician you are seeing …right away
      …in our case my husband’s physician gave him a bout 6 weeks notice that he was closing his practice. In the letter sent from his office he was told to contact health care connect. So he did . As a result he lost his old physician a month earlier than he needed to. That would have been a very valuable month considering my husband’s health problems. As a result he’s lost his driver’s licence when MTO sent him papers to have filled out that only his family physician could do.
      CDK. Doctors have been super but there is a limit as to how much they can do.

Leave a Reply

You cannot copy content from this page, please share the link instead!