An estimated 5 million Canadians do not have a family doctor.
In Ontario, that total is about 2.2 million people.
Across Niagara and in Niagara-on-the-Lake, several thousand people have no family physician.
We’re used to being treated like an inconsequential backwater here in Niagara. Witness how long it took to get the St. Catharines hospital built and the long wait for approvals for the south Niagara hospital – which finally is moving ahead.
Here in NOTL, we are fortunate that two new family doctors are joining the Niagara North Family Health Team this fall. Their services are badly needed.
But it is only a start. Having those two family physicians practising will help those who have gone without but it will only make a dent in the problem.
As The Lake Report’s ongoing in-depth health care series, Code Grey, has documented, NOTL still needs at least one more family doctor, there remains a shortage of nurses and, with our area’s aging population, more seniors specialty care is required.
On top of this, Niagara-on-the-Lake has been waiting for more than two years for the addition of a new nurse practitioner to the town’s medical cohort. Coun. Sandra O’Connor has been patiently pushing really hard to make it happen. And she, and others, keep being told, “It’s coming.”
But patients have been patient long enough.
Everyone – town leaders, medical personnel, Niagara Health, our MPP, the provincial government and layers of health bureaucracy in between all those – agrees that another nurse practitioner would be a big help.
But, it seems, Niagara is not important enough in the grand scheme of things to get this done in anywhere close to a timely fashion.
The wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly.
An official with the family health team says “there are processes that need to happen” to bring the nurse practitioner into the health team’s budget, plus there have been organizational changes at the provincial level that have interrupted those processes.
These things take time and now it seems, “it will happen likely early in the new year” and we are told there likely is nothing anyone can do that has not already been done to speed up the process.
That’s a mixture of good news and sad news – because a year ago around this time we were hearing that a nurse practitioner might be approved and on board by the last new year.
Kudos to Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa and New Democrat MPP Wayne Gates for last week firing off a joint letter demanding action from the provincial government. No word yet on how successful that overture may have been.
One of the key benefits of having another nurse practitioner is that he or she would be available at walk-in clinics – for people without a family doctor, for visitors and tourists who fall ill, and others who might need immediate care.
Because as it stands now, the unfortunate reality is the health team’s clinics are only for patients rostered with the health team.
The health team format gives doctors a bit of a monopoly over the area they serve. If you aren’t covered by the health team, you have to go elsewhere for care – typically Niagara Falls or St. Catharines.
That aside, some patients of the health team in NOTL have expressed frustration to us over an ongoing practice by the physicians’ offices. It is a busy place and getting hold of your doctor or their assistant can sometimes require multiple attempts.
And as the two-minute recording on the health team’s main line tells you, the office’s phones are not answered from noon to 2 p.m. daily.
We’re not sure why that is: Lunch break? Catching up on paperwork? Staff shortage? Whatever the reason is, it strikes us as a rather unfriendly approach to customer service.
But that’s the least of our concerns because NOTL needs another nurse practitioner. Now.