New data suggests the number of Toronto residents without a family doctor has ballooned to more than 400,000 as of March of last year.
At least 72,000 people in Toronto lost their family doctor from March 2020 to March 2022, according to research released Wednesday by INSPIRE Primary Health Care, a primary health care research program led by researchers from Queen’s University and the University of Toronto. That brings the total number of people in the city without access to a family doctor to at least 415,000.
Dr. Jobin Varughese, a family doctor in Brampton and president-elect of the Ontario College of Family Physicians, says the issue is more severe in certain pockets of the city.
“This is actually affecting people in inequitable ways,” he said. “In the west end, north end … and in Scarborough, we’re seeing that the lower the income is, the higher [the] proportions don’t have family doctors.”
The data shows that among those without a family doctor, at least 120,700 people — or about 29 per cent — are low-income residents, while 203,000 people are members of racialized communities.
Meanwhile, some 54,000 residents who suffer from mental illness and 30,000 who live with diabetes are without doctors, according to the research.
Across Ontario, the report notes that the number of people without a family doctor as of March 2022 was at least 2.2 million, an increase from 1.8 million in 2020.
The college says those numbers are likely an underestimate of the true figures because data is unavailable for patients who were born in — or moved to — the city after 2019.
College calls for more hires, digital system upgrade
The college is calling on the province to hire more health-care team members who can support family doctors and free up time for patients. It’s also demanding improvements to the “outdated” digital systems that would ease the administrative burden family doctors face.
Varughese said doctors can spend up to 19 hours a week navigating red tape or performing administrative tasks like referrals.
As an example, Varughese cited some people who moved out of the city during the pandemic and kept their family doctors. Those doctors had to track down specialists for patients in their new areas — a time-consuming task.
“A centralized referral system really will help with that because not only will we get to know exactly what diseases are treated by which person, we also will know their wait times,” Varughese said.
The college is also recommending foreign-trained doctors be fast-tracked so they can practise in Ontario. And it wants to see an increase in family medicine residency spots.
The province says more than 60,000 new nurses and almost 8,000 new doctors registered to work in Ontario since Premier Doug Ford’s government took office in 2018.
“Our province is also leading the country with 90 per cent of Ontarians having a family doctor or primary health-care provider,” Hannah Jensen, a spokesperson for Health Minister Sylvia Jones, said in a statement.
Jensen also said the province has launched the largest medical school expansion in Ontario in more than a decade. In the 2023 budget, the province added 100 medical school spots and 154 spots for medical school graduates to train as residents.
Family doctor shortage means longer hospital stays
Still, Dr. Priya Shah, a family physician from Toronto, says the city is battling a major shortage of doctors.
“We haven’t had enough family doctors to begin with,” she said. “And I think post pandemic and with the influx of so many people coming into Canada or the GTA has really made this problem much worse.”
That shortage has increased the burden on emergency rooms and resulted in longer hospital stays, Shah says.
“What I’m first-hand seeing is prolonged hospitalizations because patients, medically, are much more complex now, you know, they’re coming in later, so they’re being diagnosed with certain conditions later,” she said.