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Is a healthcare crisis brewing in family medicine too?

The president-elect of the Ontario College of Family Physicians suggests an aging workforce and low-level interest among recent grads may continue to push the field closer to a crisis point
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As calls continue to mount for more action from the province to quell a crisis in Ontario healthcare, could another be lurking just around the corner.

Ontario's Health Minister has suggested more can and should be done by the province's family physicians to help ease overwhelming pressures on Ontario's hospitals right now, but some experts suggest those clinics are also pushing closer and closer to a crisis point.

"[Nearly] 1.8 million Ontarians don't have a family doctor, and what's more scary is that 1.7 million have a doctor that's over the age of 65," said Dr. Jobin Varughese, president-elect of the Ontario College of Family Physicians. "That means, by 2025, we may see three million Ontarians without a family doctor."

There are, he said, a number of factors behind why that number seems to continue to climb.

Varughese pointed to both the aging workforce and general population as a whole, but also a lacking interest in the field of family medicine among new medical school graduates.

Behind that, he said are concerns among new grads like having to spend more time on administrative duties and less time with patients.

"And I think the other side of it is the sheer complexity has increased," Varughese said, though also noting there are improvements which could be made to help keep burnout at bay.

"A big problem we really need to work on as a province is supporting family physicians in more of a team-based care," he said. "A lot of the physicians that are working currently are in a situation where they're working on their own or with a partner, and that can lead to a lot of burnout."

Add on top what's being called the 'triple threat' currently being posed by COVID-19, the flu, and RSV, and Varughese said the drain on doctors, both mentally and physically, is growing.

"In the moment, it is very real," he said. "It's affecting the ability to get through the day-to-day and be able to feel like you've done a benefit."

Meantime, for those who do not have a family doctor, he said there are other options available which may also help keep people from needing to visit the Emergency Department instead.

"If people don't have a family doctor, to consider going to places Health Connect Ontario which has a symptom-checker and the ability to have a nurse chat," Varughese said.

Other options include calling 8-1-1 to speak with a nurse, available 24-hours a day as well as Cough, Cold, and COVID assessment centres available through Ontario.ca.

There's also a tip-sheet available for parents and patients available at ontariofamilyphysicians.ca.

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