Cambridge doctor makes history as first person of colour to lead college of physicians

By Joe McGinty

A longtime Cambridge doctor has made history as the first person of colour to be named president of the Ontario College of Family Physicians. 

Dr. Mekalai Kumanan is a family doctor at the Two Rivers Family Health Team in Cambridge and has been practicing medicine in the city for over 14 years.  She is the current chief of family and community medicine at the Cambridge Memorial Hospital and has been a member of the OCFP board since 2017.

Having seen the toll the shortage of family doctors has had on the community and the province, she wants to take advantage of her new role and implement strategies to combat this crisis; easing the pressure on the healthcare system.. 

“The shortage is a multi-factor issue,” said Dr. Kumanan. “There is an aging workforce, a lack of people going into family medicine and high burnout rates.”

Dr. Kumanan said two out of three family doctors are reporting moderate to high burnout from their amount of workload. A doctor can spend over 25 hours a week in administrative duties that take them away from their patients and puts an extra strain on doctors already working long hours, she added. 

An estimated 385 doctors left the profession at the start of the pandemic, more than any years prior to 2020, a new report finds. It's estimated more than 170,000 patients lost access to their primary health care provider due to the exodus from healthcare. 

Family practices are also feeling the burden of the staffing shortages that are currently plaguing hospitals; they are all fishing out of the same pool of administrative and nursing staff, Kumanan said.

The lack of hospital staff is increasing wait times in emergency departments and pushing more people to family doctors, adding additional stress on the smaller practices. 

As the new president of OCFP, Dr. Kumanan proposes a three-pronged approach to easing some of the pressures on the healthcare system. 

The first will be to look at how they recruit and retain family doctors and come up with a solution to ensure all Ontarians have a family physician. 

The second will look to increase the amount of time family doctors provide direct patient care. To do so they need to reduce the administrative burden to free up time. 

Then finally is the goal of expanding team based care across the province, so that family doctors are working with a team of professionals, and patients are able to access care from the right person at the right time.

“If we can bring all of those three solutions forward, and see those come into play, I think that will make a really big difference in terms of the numbers that we're seeing,” said Dr. Kumanan.

In her new role, she looks to be a champion and a role model for women of colour and other marginalized communities. Being the first person of colour to be named president of the college, she is taking on this responsibility with pride. 

“As a woman of colour, I really see this as a privilege to be leading our organization. And I will be championing our equity, diversity and inclusion markets,” said Dr. Kumanan. “We have a diverse membership of 15,000 family doctors across the province and it's important that we include that diverse voice in everything that we do. I look forward to the challenge.”

As of now, 1.8 million patients across the province don't have a family doctor; trends are showing that number is very likely to increase to three million by 2025, said Dr. Kumanan. 

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